Americans Reject World Police Role, Fear Being Drawn Into War

United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll finds people think the U.S. has no obligation to punish countries for WMD use.

A U.S. Navy Super Hornet prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Red Sea as Washington debates a strike against Syria. 
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Sept. 10, 2013, 7:29 p.m.

Amer­ic­ans are far more wor­ried that mil­it­ary strikes against Syr­ia will drag the na­tion fur­ther in­to that coun­try’s civil war than the pos­sib­il­ity that stay­ing away will em­bolden des­pots in oth­er na­tions to de­ploy weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

That’s the find­ing of the latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, which also found that few­er than two in five Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the United States has an ob­lig­a­tion to pun­ish for­eign gov­ern­ments that de­ploy weapons of mass de­struc­tion to kill ci­vil­ians.

Taken to­geth­er, the res­ults show a na­tion wary of fur­ther en­tan­gle­ments 12 years re­moved from the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after the pro­longed mil­it­ary con­flicts in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. The sur­vey also shows that Re­pub­lic­ans, long the na­tion’s more hawk­ish party, are now among those most skit­tish of fur­ther in­ter­ven­tions abroad.

That can be partly ex­plained away by the fact that Pres­id­ent Obama, a Demo­crat, is lead­ing the cur­rent call for strikes against Syr­ia. But it is also evid­ence that the liber­tari­an, non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist wing with­in the GOP is grow­ing at the grass­roots level. It is ten­sion likely to play out in the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary.

The poll, which was con­duc­ted be­fore Obama’s na­tion­al ad­dress Tues­day and his blitz of net­work in­ter­views Monday, found that a 50 per­cent ma­jor­ity said they are more con­cerned about be­ing “drawn more deeply” in­to war in Syr­ia. Only 32 per­cent said they are more con­cerned that not tak­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion would em­bolden oth­er na­tions to use mass-de­struc­tion weapons.

Amer­ic­ans across all age groups, re­gions, in­comes, and levels of school­ing are more fear­ful of be­ing fur­ther en­tangled in the Syr­i­an con­flict. Ex­actly 50 per­cent of col­lege gradu­ates, col­lege dro­pouts, and those with a high school edu­ca­tion or less all said that it was ris­ki­er to be drawn deep­er in­to Syr­ia.

The only group that split on the ques­tion was Demo­crats, who were evenly di­vided, 43 per­cent to 43 per­cent, over which op­tion posed the great­er risk. In­de­pend­ents, by a 52 per­cent to 29 per­cent mar­gin, said strik­ing Syr­ia was ris­ki­er. So did Re­pub­lic­ans, by a 54 per­cent to 32 per­cent mar­gin.

In a sign of how in­ward-look­ing the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an Party has be­come, a slim ma­jor­ity of self-iden­ti­fied Re­pub­lic­ans, 51 per­cent, said the United States does not have an ob­lig­a­tion to pun­ish oth­er coun­tries that use “chem­ic­al weapons or oth­er weapons of mass de­struc­tion to kill ci­vil­ians.” Only 37 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said the coun­try has such an ob­lig­a­tion. That con­sti­tutes a shift for a party that a dec­ade ago, un­der Re­pub­lic­an Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, led the na­tion to war in Ir­aq over the pos­sib­il­ity that Sad­dam Hus­sein had such weapons, not that he was act­ively us­ing them. (It turned out he did not have the weapons).

Times have changed. As Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., said fol­low­ing a clas­si­fied brief­ing Monday even­ing on Syr­ia, “Amer­ica can no longer af­ford to be the world’s po­lice­man.”

In the poll, in­de­pend­ents agreed with the GOP’s cur­rent lim­ited views of Amer­ica’s role abroad, with 51 per­cent also say­ing the United States need not pun­ish gov­ern­ments that de­ploy such weapons. But a slim plur­al­ity of Demo­crats, 45 per­cent to 44 per­cent, dis­agreed and said the United States has such an ob­lig­a­tion. Some of that party dif­fer­ence is likely at­trib­ut­able to Obama lead­ing the cur­rent cam­paign for strikes.

Oth­er than party lines, the poll showed re­mark­able con­sist­ence across a mul­ti­tude of demo­graph­ics. For in­stance, only 35 per­cent of col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men said that Amer­ica had no ob­lig­a­tion to pun­ish those who use weapons of mass de­struc­tion. That is sim­il­ar to the 38 per­cent of white men without col­lege de­grees who felt that way.

Rur­al Amer­ic­ans were the least likely to sup­port pun­ish­ing for­eign gov­ern­ments (34 per­cent), but those who live in sub­urbs (38 per­cent) and cit­ies (40 per­cent) were only slightly more likely to say U.S. in­ter­ven­tion was an ob­lig­a­tion.

The latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll was con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al. The group sur­veyed 1,002 adults by land­line and cell phone from Sept. 5-8. It has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.6 per­cent­age points.

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