Paul Pillar

Americans Don't Want a War

It is common knowledge that the wording and framing of questions heavily influence the results of public-opinion polls. Some good recent examples concern American attitudes toward the Iranian nuclear issue. A new CBS/New York Times poll seems to show a majority of Americans favoring the use of military force against Iran, with 51 percent supporting and 36 percent opposing. But look at the question that was asked: “Would you support or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran in order to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons program?” There is nothing about diplomacy or other means to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon. The question carries the implicit assumption that the choice is binary, with the development of an Iranian nuke the certain alternative if military force is not employed. There is nothing to get the respondent thinking about the full consequences of a particular policy choice, including the choice of military action. (I expect the results would have been significantly different if the words “going to war” were substituted for “taking military action,” even though in this instance they are substantively equivalent.) Most important, the question incorrectly implies efficacy: that military action really would “prevent” a nuclear-weapons program, rather than at best delaying such a program and most likely leading the Iranians to take a decision they had not already taken to institute such a program.

Another poll, also just out and conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the University of Maryland, presents questions on the related subject of a possible Israeli military strike, and the results give a substantially different impression. When presented with a choice between an Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear program or the United States and other major powers pursuing negotiations, a large majority (69 percent to 24 percent) favor negotiations. When asked how the United States should react if Israel does strike, 25 percent say to give Israel whatever it requests, including military forces, 14 percent favor publicly supporting Israel but not providing military support and 49 percent favor staying neutral, with smaller numbers favoring public opposition to Israel. The reluctance to get involved militarily is all the more significant given that the respondents in this same poll express decidedly pessimistic—unrealistically so—views about the implications of the Iranian program and of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Fifty-eight percent believe (contrary to the publicly expressed U.S. intelligence judgment) that Iran has already decided to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so. Forty-nine percent believe it is very likely and 40 percent somewhat likely that Iran actually will develop nuclear weapons. And 62 percent believe Iran would be likely to use nuclear weapons against Israel “because it is so hostile to Israel.”

The American public's aversion to a new war is not surprising given the experiences of the past decade. The aversion is also reflected in recent trends in American opinion regarding Afghanistan. The expressed aversion would undoubtedly be even clearer if Americans had a more accurate view of the nature of the Iranian nuclear program and a more realistic view of the consequences if Iran did get the bomb. (For an explanation of a more realistic view, I invite readers to see my recent article in the Washington Monthly addressing the subject.)

All of this has implications for war and peace as well as for election-year politics. If Americans could be swayed a bit less by mindless alarmism and a bit more by a sober consideration of what an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean, then their expressed aversion to a war might become so clear than even Republican presidential candidates would no longer see political advantage in saber rattling. And that would be good not only because the saber rattling benefits Iran and especially Iranian hard-liners but also because stopping it would at least marginally improve the quality of political debate in the United States.

Image: Shreyans Bhansali