The Chicago Council on Global Affairs officially released their biannual survey of American foreign policy attitudes today. The Chicago Council survey's consistent polling on core foreign policy attitudes over a forty-year span allows for meaningful comparison over a long time-frame, giving its reports an enduring value beyond the findings on issues currently in the headlines. This year's report, overseen by the fabulous Dina Smeltz (on Twitter as @roguepollster), more than delivers on that promise.
Some of the most intriguing findings have already been cherry-picked by Dan Drezner: the Afghanistan war is now as unpopular as the Iraq war; Americans don't much care about multilateral support anymore; 64% say they would prefer the U.S. to not take sides between Israel and the Palestinians; there's little support for military action anywhere except against Iran. Most Americans (83%) still think the U.S. ought to lead the world (this is still America), and see it as the most influential country in the world (poor Vladimir Putin, who after all his efforts to promote Russian influence still trails Japan on that scale). And while the report highlights the core stability of American attitudes, it is striking that the 41% who said it would be best for the country if the U.S. stayed out of world affairs is the highest ever recorded in the forty years of the survey.
The Chicago Council survey was in the field less than two months before the ISIS beheadings of two American freelance journalists, which has pretty significantly upended some of these long-term trends. Last week, almost two thirds of Americans told a Wall Street Journal survey that they supported military strikes against ISIS, while 71% told a Washington Post survey that they supported airstrikes in Iraq and 65% supported airstrikes in Syria. That's a stunning contrast to last fall, when multiple surveys found a consistent 70-80% opposing any military action against Syria.
The reason for this enormous shift almost certainly lies in the framing of the current military action in terms of counter-terrorism rather than humanitarian intervention or regime change. The Chicago Council survey found that 70% of Americans opposed arming the Syrian rebels and 78% opposed sending U.S. troops, results entirely consistent with the findings of most surveys over the previous two years. But even before the beheadings and the ISIS advances, 71% supported airstrikes against terrorist facilities and targets - down 16 points from 2002, to be sure, but still a strikingly large number and almost exactly equivalent to what is currently being recorded in the newspaper surveys. In other words, American views on bombing "ISIS" have very different foundations than their views on bombing "Syria."
The question is whether the current interventionist mood reflcted in the surveys will last as the memory of the beheadings fades and the problems with a growing American role in Iraq and Syria mount. The longer view of the core stability in foreign policy attitudes recorded in the Chicago Council's regular surveys suggests that this is more likely to be a blip than an inflection point in terms of attitudes towards military engagement in the Middle East. The next survey, two years hence, should be a fascinating test of that question.