Although the U.S. presidential election has hardly been about real policy issues, the conflict in Syria and the fight against the Islamic State have been among the hot policy issues frequently debated by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the past year. Though both have highlighted the threat of the Islamic State, they have differed on how to actually deal with it.
A new University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll — fielded by Nielsen Scarborough among a nationally representative sample of 1,528 registered voters with a 2.5 percentage point margin of error — sheds new light on where the American public stands on these issues. It turns out that Americans want to put aside differences with Russia and join forces against the Islamic State (ISIS in our poll). This is not to say that Americans trust Russia or like its president, Vladimir Putin. In fact, Americans dislike Putin, with Democrats identifying him in an open-ended question as the single most disliked national or world leader, while Republicans identify him as the fourth most disliked, close to Kim Jong Un but far behind their domestic nemeses, President Obama and Clinton.
Despite this expressed dislike of Putin, the American public is inclined to put differences with Russia aside to confront the Islamic State, even though Moscow is also working with the United States’ opponents, namely the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah and Iran. And while Americans continue to express reservations about more extensive U.S. military involvement in Syria, Trump’s constituency expresses views far more hawkish than not only those of Clinton but also what Trump has expressed.
Start with attitudes about the relations with Russia on Syria. Americans across partisan lines are unified on one question: the degree to which they would like to see more Russian-American cooperation. Two-thirds of the public say that the current level of cooperation is less than what they would like to see, including 72 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats.
After describing the fact that the United States and Russia support opposite sides of the Syrian conflict while both also want to defeat the Islamic State, respondents were asked about the best path to defeat the Islamic State. Some 60 percent — including two-thirds of Republicans and a majority of Democrats — preferred to put aside differences with Russia to focus on confronting the Islamic State.
Obviously, one of the drivers of these attitudes is the fact that the public has been identifying the Islamic State as a top threat to American interests for many months, as early as November 2014. In fact, in the current poll, fighting the Islamic State supersedes even immigration and trade deficit as a priority for the American public. Asked to choose their top two priorities among a list of issues that also included the rise of China and the assertiveness of Russia, fighting the Islamic State topped all, with 53 percent of respondents identifying it as one of the two top priorities.
This public emphasis on the Islamic State threat beats other concerns, including worries about Russia’s assertiveness. It also supersedes public worries about Assad. It is, of course, possible that the U.S. public, distracted by its presidential campaign, has not been sufficiently paying attention to reports of Russian and Syrian government bombings that have killed many civilians and destroyed hospitals. It is also unlikely that much of the public has been exposed to arguments that Assad has had an interest in the rise of the Islamic State as a way of diverting global and domestic energies that could have otherwise focused on confronting him. But the Syria story has been around for years, and U.S. media reports focused on atrocities and refugees long before the campaign started. Many Americans deeply dislike Assad (he was named sixth on the most disliked list) and want to see his regime changed. In a question specific to what they would like the U.S. to focus on in Syria, 35 percent of respondents said they saw both the defeat of and removing Assad’s government as priorities. However, 52 percent chose defeating the Islamic State compared with only 2 percent that chose removing Assad.
Favoring cooperation with Russia may also be seen as a function of bad alternatives: Two-thirds of the public fear giving significant military support to Syrian rebels that may include Islamist elements other than the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Even after presenting respondents with a series of conventional arguments in favor of and against sending a large American ground force to help defeat the Islamic State, 63 percent of Americans still end up opposing such a step.
If there is an effective case to be made that addressing Assad or Russian foreign policy should be at least as important as confronting the Islamic State — or that the Islamic State threat may be exaggerated given America’s other global priorities — this poll shows that Americans have not heard it. For now, confronting the Islamic State supersedes all, including dislike for Putin and Assad.
Shibley Telhami is Sadat professor and director, University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.