Why Obama's War on ISIL Won't Hold Its Popularity

"Despite the apparently strong initial wave of support for confronting ISIL, however, Obama’s campaign will almost certainly become a very unpopular affair." 

With the prime-time announcement of his campaign to destroy ISIL, President Obama is staking his presidency in a place he certainly never intended. Obama launches his campaign with what appears to be a reasonable level of public support. A September CNN/ORC poll found that roughly 75 percent of the public supports airstrikes against ISIL, a figure that may climb a bit higher in the wake of Obama’s address to the nation on September 10. This support compares relatively favorably with most U.S. military interventions of the past (see Gallup’s list of public support by major intervention here), closer to initial levels of support for Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, than to the invasion of Panama or the Kosovo air war.

Despite the apparently strong initial wave of support for confronting ISIL, however, Obama’s campaign will almost certainly become a very unpopular affair. This will occur despite his best efforts to frame the campaign as part of the war against terrorism, despite his strategy to maintain support by avoiding the use of ground troops and U.S. casualties, and it will happen regardless of how much damage the United States manages to inflict on ISIL.

Americans are Tired of War (Especially in the Middle East)

The president should draw little comfort from recent polling showing that Americans have edged towards support for a more activist foreign policy. For starters, 40 percent of Americans still think the United States needs to be less active in world affairs compared to 25 percent who think the United States should be more active. And in general, Americans are less interested in “leaning in” than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

Moreover, the surge of concern about ISIL is likely to be ephemeral, given it is primarily the result of the development of Obama’s new strategy and attendant hyperventilation by cable and Internet news sources (for a look at these, watch this). As the policy kicks in and time passes, the American public’s disinterest in foreign affairs and its long-term war weariness will reassert itself as news from the campaign reminds people of the last decade of conflict and all the reasons they wanted to leave the Middle East in the first place.

To this general war weariness we must add the fact that formidable majorities of Americans have repeatedly dismissed any notion that the United States is somehow responsible for the future of Iraq and Syria. Every action that appears to be aimed at supporting Syrian and Iraqi institutions, rather than directly at confronting ISIL, is likely to rouse suspicion and eventually opposition. The president should not mistake public concern for ISIL as a sign that Americans actually want any more time and treasure spent helping the Middle East when there are so many problems at home.

Finally, to no one’s surprise, there is very little stomach in the United States for more ground war—just 38 percent favor such an action in the recent CNN/ORC poll. This figure undoubtedly helped shape the Obama strategy of relying on airstrikes and supplying equipment, but the fact that Obama will purposely be employing a less effective military strategy that by definition will prolong the mission is bound to create friction and leaves him open to criticism, especially if progress starts to look elusive.

ISIL is not Al Qaeda

Given the American public’s lack of interest in helping salvage and rebuild Iraq and Syria, Obama is almost certainly right that stoking the fear of terrorism is the best way to encourage Americans to support airstrikes and other efforts to confront ISIL. However, it is difficult to see Obama’s counterterrorism framing being sufficient to help the American public endure much, if any, hardship as it engages ISIL. In the wake of 9/11, Al Qaeda represented a clear and present danger to U.S. national security. But the American public does not yet see the threat from ISIL in the same way, thanks in part to collective ignorance about the group and its designs, but also in part to the fact that the U.S. intelligence community is on record as saying there is zero evidence that ISIL has any plans to attack the United States.

In the absence of a concrete threat from ISIL, the invisible benefits of the campaign will pale next to its visible costs and frustrations. In the worst case, the extended U.S. engagement in the domestic politics of Iraq and Syria will persuade many people that the entire exercise is primarily an effort to reshape the Middle East, rather than a necessary act of self-defense. If this happens, we can expect support to drop to levels similar to the current levels of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is not much the American people like less than nation building.

The campaign will last too long

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