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Are Republicans or Democrats closer to general American public opinion on the Middle East?

- June 8, 2015

Republican presidential hopeful and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) answers questions from the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations on May 13, 2015, in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Middle East policy is likely to be a key battlefield in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton will need to choose whether to run on her record as secretary of state or distance herself from the Obama administration, with her challengers positioning accordingly. On the Republican side, prospective candidates appear eager to denounce the Obama administration’s policies toward Syria, Iraq, the so-called Islamic State and other extremist Islamist movements, Libya, the Gulf and Israel.
To position themselves, candidates will have to navigate some important divides between party elites and the broader public on these Middle East policy issues. A new report just published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “United in Goals, Divided on Means,” offers some uniquely relevant insights into those divisions. It isn’t just that Democratic and Republican leaders differ on whether a muscular or multilateral approach is the best way to achieve foreign policy goals. There are profound gaps between policy elites and the broader electorate that cannot be overlooked.
The Chicago Council leadership survey was conducted online between May and July 2014, with nearly 700 opinion leaders in the United States including people working in Congress and executive branch agencies; fellows at top foreign policy think tanks; academics at the top universities for international relations; leaders of internationally focused interest groups, NGOs and multinational corporations; and members of the media writing on international issues. Because there is no complete representative listing of foreign policy opinion leaders, it is not possible to calculate specific margins of error; therefore the results should be treated as merely suggestive.
The leader results are compared to findings from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, the latest in a series of surveys on American attitudes on U.S. foreign policy going back to 1974. The public opinion survey was conducted online May 6-29, 2014, by GfK Custom Research, among a representative national sample of 2,108 adults, including an oversample of 311 Hispanic respondents. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is +/- 2.5, but is higher when comparing subgroups such as partisan affiliations.
In terms of overall priorities, Republican opinion leaders surveyed unsurprisingly consider maintaining U.S. military superiority worldwide (84 percent) and combating international terrorism (84 percent) very important goals. They perceive the most critical threats as Iran’s nuclear program (75 percent) and Islamic fundamentalism (72 percent). Democratic opinion leaders surveyed see climate change as the top threat (79 percent) and limiting climate change (84 percent) their top goal. Independent opinion leaders are less likely to sense threats overall, but their top three include cyber-attacks (67 percent), climate change (53 percent) and international terrorism (52 percent).
These overall viewpoints play out fairly clearly in terms of Middle East policy. Republican leaders are much more convinced than other opinion leaders that the U.S. military presence in the Middle East increases stability (94 percent of Republican leaders surveyed compared to 65 percent of Democratic leaders, 63 percent of Independent leaders, 56 percent overall public). Republican leaders are also considerably more supportive of maintaining long-term military bases in Kuwait (71 percent versus 55 percent Democratic leaders, 45 percent Independent leaders, 47 percent overall public), Turkey (73 percent Republican leaders, 65 percent Democratic leaders, 60 percent Independent leaders, 43 percent overall public) and hypothetically, Iraq (45 percent, 18 percent Democratic leaders, 24 percent Independent leaders, 41 percent overall public).
Perhaps most telling, Republican leaders alone express a majority view that the wars in Iraq (53 percent) and Afghanistan (77 percent) were worth the costs. The American public decidedly disagrees, with no more than three in 10 overall saying that the wars were worth the cost (26 percent believe Iraq was worth it, 27 percent believe Afghanistan was worth it).
Republican leaders are also substantially more hawkish about the use of U.S. troops to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and if Israel were attacked by its neighbors. Two in three Republican opinion leaders, compared to about one in three Democrats and Independents, would support the use of U.S. troops to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. On this potential action against Iran, the public also supports the use of force, 69 percent overall. But the public (62 percent) – along with Democratic (96 percent) and Independent (86 percent) opinion leaders – also support the 2013 interim agreement with Iran, while Republican opinion leaders alone oppose it (only 41 percent of Republican opinion leaders support it). Moreover, six in 10 Republican and Independent leaders versus about half of Democratic opinion leaders and the overall public would support using U.S. troops to defend Israel.
Republican opinion leaders are substantially more likely than other leaders to favor military action in Syria, including enforcing a no-fly-zone over Syria (80 percent versus 52 percent of Democratic leaders, 55 percent of Independent leaders, 48 percent of the overall public). Republican opinion leaders are similarly the most supportive of sending arms and supplies to anti-government groups in Syria (73 percent versus 55 percent Democratic leaders, 45 percent Independent leaders, 25 percent of overall public). But even Republican leaders stop short of sending in ground troops: No more than 10 percent of opinion leaders across political affiliations and only 17 percent of the overall public expresses support for deploying troops to Syria.
There is widespread support for the use of force against terrorism, even before the United States entered the battle against the Islamic State (when the survey was fielded). Majorities of opinion leaders across the political spectrum support a broad range of both military and non-military actions to counter terrorist activities. But none more emphatically than Republican opinion leaders: 100 percent of Republican leaders support airstrikes against terrorist training camps and facilities, as do large majorities of Democratic opinion leaders (78 percent), Independent leaders (74 percent), and the overall public (71 percent). Nearly all Republican leaders also support assassinations (97 percent), compared to seven in 10 Democratic leaders, Independent leaders and the overall public. Nine in 10 Republican leaders also support drone strikes, compared to about six in 10 Democratic leaders, Independent leaders and the overall public. And 71 percent of Republican leaders support sending ground troops against terrorist training camps and facilities, compared to smaller majorities of Independent leaders (54 percent) and the overall public (56 percent). Only 40 percent of Democratic leaders favor sending ground troops.
By contrast, in two peacekeeping scenarios, Democrats express the greatest support. Solid majorities of Democrats would favor the use of U.S. troops to participate in an international peacekeeping force if a peace agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians (83 percent Democratic leaders, 64 percent of Independent leaders) and if a peace agreement is reached in Syria (61 percent Democratic leaders, 47 percent Independent leaders). Only about half of Republican opinion leaders would favor U.S. participation in these peacekeeping missions (45 percent for Israel, 48 percent for Syria).
Among the overall public, 50 percent would favor U.S. participation in an Israeli peacekeeping mission, but only 44 percent would support U.S. participation in a Syria peacekeeping scenario. A majority of those who self-identify as Democrats among the public support sending U.S. troops for each of these peacekeeping missions. As the full report demonstrates, these views align with Democrats’ greater support for the United Nations and international treaties.
Taken together, it’s clear that the Republican elite have a greater tolerance for sending troops and drones abroad, as well as arms to Syrian anti-government groups. GOP candidates are already appealing to their base with the philosophy of “might is right.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) emphasized the importance of continued military strength in a May 13 speech at the Council on Foreign Relation: “When America has the mightiest Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and intelligence community in the world, the result is more peace, not more conflict.” And in an interview with Fox News last month, former governor and expected GOP candidate Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) went on the offensive, stating that, “And the narrative that the left wants to bring which is either you’re for this nuanced view of pulling back and they were leading from behind and that we’re part of the community of nations and blah, blah, blah, that if you don’t believe that, you’re a warmonger, I just reject that out of hand.”
While these statements might sit well with Republican influentials, they do not dovetail quite so neatly with American public opinion. For the most part, Americans lean toward staying out of conflicts abroad (aside from anti-terrorism efforts and to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon), even in hypotheticals when an ally is attacked. While other polls have shown dissatisfaction with President Obama’s handling of foreign policy, public preferences nevertheless do seem to align with the administration’s general restraint. Moreover, the public’s top priority is to protect American jobs (76 percent of overall public) – which does not register very prominently among either Republican, Democratic or Independent opinion leaders’ radars in this survey.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.