The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Americans’ support for bombing ISIS may not last

Charlene Colella, a self-described strong Democrat from Center Barnstead, N.H., was no fan of the Iraq war. She recalls the war as an effort based on a lie, saying that no chemical weapons were there and citing the high number of casualties that resulted.

But Colella, along with many other Americans, favors airstrikes against a group of Sunni insurgents called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS.

Colella, a respondent to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, said in a follow-up interview, “We have to deal with them, to take them out. I don’t like war and I know the American people are tired of it. But we can’t have terrorists running around.”

The new Post-ABC poll finds a sharp change in opinion among the American public when it comes to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. In the survey, 71 percent support airstrikes to target the ISIS Sunni insurgents in Iraq and nearly two-thirds support expanding airstrikes into Syria.

Contrast that to a Post-ABC poll in late June that showed the public was split on the question of airstrikes against Sunni insurgents. One year ago, the public was resolutely against airstrikes in Syria. And a Pew poll last week finds that 41 percent of Americans say the United States will not go far enough in pursuing ISIS, up nine percentage points in a month.

*Question wording for September 2013: The United States says it has determined that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in the civil war there. Given this, do you support or oppose the United States launching missile strikes against the Syrian government? 

That desire for airstrikes runs counter to the long-held unpopularity of the Iraq war. Since late 2004, majorities have said the conflict was not worth fighting, considering the costs vs. the benefits.

ISIS, an outgrowth of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, is inspiring caution if not downright fear. More than nine in 10 consider the group a very or somewhat serious threat to the vital interests of the United States. And the public is paying attention. According to the Pew poll, two-thirds are following news about the ISIS situation closely.  (It’s worth noting that some security experts have strongly suggested that government officials have overhyped the ISIS threat.)

For Colella, two main things altered her views. The first realization came from watching the Emmy Award-winning HBO news show “Vice,” which introduced intimate portraits of terrorist recruitment among Islamic extremists in a way other news shows had not.

The second turning point was the recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Both Foley and Sotloff had lived in New Hampshire, bringing the violence close to home.

“Threats are one thing, but when something actually happens, you’ve got to deal with people like that,” Coelella said. As many as 94 percent say they have heard at least something about the beheaded American journalists in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, among the most visible news stories they have tested over the past five years.

Coaella is a Democrat and a woman, two groups who’ve been most opposed to extending the fight started in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

So will opinions on Iraq, and terrorism more broadly, fundamentally change because of this new threat? Or put another way, is the desire to take out ISIS durable, beyond the current public support for airstrikes?

Trends in opinion on wars in the past half-century suggest that the American public can quite quickly begin to suffer from war fatigue. The Gallup poll has asked a relatively consistent question about wars going back to Korea in 1950. The question, in various forms, asks: “Do you think the United States made a mistake sending troops to __ or not?”

In the early stages of each war — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — large numbers said troop deployments were not a mistake. But over time, without fail, those numbers reversed with majorities or near-majorities saying each conflict was a mistake.

High-profile events in a war can change opinions, but usually not in a lasting way. Support for the Iraq war increased six points within days of Saddam Hussein’s capture on Dec. 13, 2003. In those early stages of the war, majorities considered it worth the effort. But within two months of his capture, opinions were split, with 48 percent saying it was worth it and 50 percent saying it wasn’t.

In late March 2004, a convoy of U.S. military contractors was ambushed and killed in Fallujah and their bodies were burned and dragged through the streets. Public opinion went south on the war in Post-ABC polls within months of that attack, never to return to majority support.

The negative and stable opinions about the Iraq war look quite similar to long-term fears about terrorism at the personal level. A recent CNN poll finds 41 percent expressing worry about becoming a victim of terrorism, a sentiment that has held firm for the past decade.

Fears of terrorism at a more general level are higher than personal worries and have jumped up in the new CNN poll. Fifty-three percent say that another act of terrorism around the Sept. 11 anniversary is likely, up from 39 percent who said the same in 2011.

But in the longer run, worries about a terrorism strike in the United States have been somewhat stable. In a July poll from the Pew Research Center, 59 percent said they worry that there will soon be another attack in the United States, similar to 2013 and 2010.

Time will tell if opinions about terrorism and support for military action are fundamentally altered by the ISIS threat. Without a cataclysmic event such as the 9/11 attacks, it seems unlikely that the public will express a sustained desire for military action.