Americans Are Not Happy With Obama About Iraq. But They Don’t Really Know What to Do.

The crisis in Iraq has Americans frustrated with the president, a new poll finds. But that’s about the only thing that’s obvious.

An Iraqi Shiite fighter holds his weapon as people gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants on June 23, 2014 in the southern city of Basra. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
June 24, 2014, 5:21 a.m.

There’s a big new CBS News/New York Times poll out Tues­day morn­ing that makes one thing very clear: Amer­ic­ans are not very pleased with Pres­id­ent Obama’s hand­ling of for­eign policy, par­tic­u­larly in Ir­aq. But if any­one wants to look at these num­bers and make the case that the will of the people is squarely on one side of the crisis — in­ter­ven­tion­ist, isol­a­tion­ist, hawk, dove — they’re out of luck.

The poll found that just 36 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans ap­prove of Obama’s hand­ling of for­eign policy, com­pared with 58 per­cent who dis­ap­prove. That 58 per­cent is a 10-point spike over the last month, likely linked to the de­teri­or­at­ing situ­ation in Ir­aq. The last time the poll asked Amer­ic­ans about Obama’s hand­ling of “the situ­ation” in Ir­aq spe­cific­ally was in late 2011, shortly be­fore the last U.S. troops with­drew from the coun­try. Back then, the pres­id­ent re­ceived a 60 per­cent ap­prov­al and 30 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al rat­ing on Ir­aq. Now, that’s vir­tu­ally flipped to 37 per­cent ap­prov­al and 52 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al.

But des­pite his low over­all ap­prov­al, 41 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say Obama is do­ing the right amount to ad­dress vi­ol­ence in Ir­aq, with 29 per­cent say­ing he should do more and 22 per­cent say­ing he should do less.

The Ir­aq ap­prov­al num­bers alone sug­gest something of a non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist trend for Amer­ic­ans — ap­prov­al is high when we’re leav­ing Ir­aq, low when we’re look­ing to go back in some ca­pa­city; and less than a third of Amer­ic­ans are really agit­at­ing for more than Obama’s already done. Some oth­er num­bers in the poll cer­tainly back that up. Just 37 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans think the U.S. should take the lead in try­ing to solve in­ter­na­tion­al con­flicts, with 58 per­cent say­ing the U.S. shouldn’t. That’s vir­tu­ally un­changed from March, re­flect­ing a broad­er in­clin­a­tion to­ward non­in­ter­ven­tion, backed up by oth­er re­cent polls.

On Ir­aq, spe­cific­ally, only 18 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans now tell CBS/NYT that the res­ult of the war was worth the lives lost and oth­er costs, with 75 per­cent say­ing it was not worth the loss. Most Amer­ic­ans — 57 per­cent — say that the U.S. does not have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to make sure Ir­aq has a stable demo­cracy. Fifty-sev­en per­cent of Amer­ic­ans also think that the cur­rent situ­ation in Ir­aq is bey­ond U.S. con­trol.

This sounds like great news for someone like the staunchly non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist Rand Paul, and a lot like the death rattle of neo­con­ser­vat­ive for­eign policy. But the num­bers don’t end there, and they con­fuse any sense of an isol­a­tion­ist trend. Amer­ic­ans are roughly split on wheth­er the U.S. should have left some troops in Ir­aq after 2011 — 50 per­cent in fa­vor of re­mov­ing them all, 42 per­cent in fa­vor of keep­ing some there. The same split ex­ists when people are asked if Amer­ic­ans have re­spons­ib­il­ity to do something about the cur­rent vi­ol­ence in the coun­try: 42 per­cent say U.S. has re­spons­ib­il­ity; 50 per­cent say it doesn’t. A slim ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans sup­port the U.S. send­ing mil­it­ary ad­visers to Ir­aq (51 per­cent) and sup­port work­ing with Ir­an to re­solve the situ­ation (53 per­cent). Eighty per­cent of Amer­ic­ans think that what hap­pens to Ir­aq is either very or some­what im­port­ant to U.S. in­terests.

And the worst news for the anti-drone, Rand Paul set: 56 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans fa­vor us­ing un­manned air­craft to carry out tar­geted at­tacks on mil­it­ants in Ir­aq, while 38 per­cent op­pose. At the same time, the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans op­pose send­ing in ground troops (77 per­cent), and a bare ma­jor­ity op­pose us­ing manned air­craft for strikes (51 per­cent).

Scattered pub­lic opin­ion on for­eign policy is not sur­pris­ing, es­pe­cially when it comes to the cur­rent vi­ol­ence in Ir­aq, which both evokes the bit­ter, re­cent past and sum­mons plenty of fears for the fu­ture. The U.S. should do something in Ir­aq, most Amer­ic­ans seem to think, but there’s no thing that most are really grabbing onto — ex­cept for maybe drones.

The murk­i­ness puts Obama in an es­pe­cially tough spot. The pres­id­ent seems al­most doomed to frus­trate a large num­ber of Amer­ic­ans no mat­ter what he does in Ir­aq. And the thing is, this crisis may only just be get­ting star­ted.