Most Americans support war against ISIS but lack confidence it will achieve its goal

NBC News reports: Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they lack confidence that the U.S. will achieve its goals in fighting the terrorist group ISIS, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll. The findings come in the wake of President Barack Obama’s national address announcing new measures to combat the Sunni militants.

Pressure is mounting on the U.S. and its allies to cripple the militants, who have waged a brutal campaign across Syria and Iraq. ISIS already has beheaded two American journalists and on Saturday released a video showing the execution of a third Westerner, British aid worker David Haines.

The poll – conducted before the latest execution emerged – showed that a combined 68 percent of Americans say they have “very little” or “just some” confidence that Obama’s goals of degrading and eliminating the threat posed by ISIS will be achieved. Just 28 percent said they had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence. Still, 62 percent of voters say they support Obama’s decision to take action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while 22 percent oppose it. [Continue reading…]

There are lots of ways of reading these numbers and I imagine that all of the following explanations are applicable to varying degrees:

1. “Do you support the war?” A certain percentage of Americans would answer “yes” even if they didn’t know which war they were supporting.

2. “Do you believe it’s necessary to fight ISIS even if the outcome of this fight is uncertain?” In an era where wars all appear to be wars of choice, it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamental meaning of a war of necessity: there appears to be no alternative. For instance, Britain’s commitment to continue fighting against Germany even after the Nazis had taken control over all of the rest of Europe, might in 1940 have looked unrealistic, but it was a stance driven by necessity rather than confidence in the outcome. Likewise, it’s possible to believe that fighting against ISIS is a necessity, even if it remains unclear whether this fight will be successful. (And before anyone leaves a comment: No, I’m not comparing ISIS to the Third Reich.)

3. “Do you think this war will have any direct impact on your life?” Since most Americans can reasonably assume that a war on ISIS will affect them personally to no greater extent than it impacts what they see on television, it’s relatively easy to support a war whose costs are relatively intangible. Likewise, it matters less what the war’s outcome might be when it involves little sacrifice.

4. “Do you think President Obama presented a credible strategy for destroying ISIS?” If the answer’s “no” and this is why you lack confidence in this war, then I’d take that as a fairly good indication that you are following this story reasonably closely.

5. Of course the most obvious reason why Americans would be skeptical about the chances of success for a war against ISIS is the fact that after sinking trillions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terrorism, al Qaeda still exists.

As has happened so many times before, Obama formulates his policies in reaction to banal, superficial, political imperatives whose primary purpose is to fend off critics.

On Thursday he presented his strategy for destroying ISIS because only days before he got slammed for admitting he didn’t have a strategy.

After he made various comments suggesting that he only aimed to contain ISIS and was thus criticized for underestimating the threat it poses and for being too timid in his response, he answered critics by saying that his aim was to destroy ISIS.

After it was pointed out that fighting ISIS in Iraq would accomplish little if it could continue to consolidate its strength in Syria, Obama said the fight would be taken to Syria.

Each of his steps is reactive and political — as though the primary task at hand was to deflect criticism.

If there’s a vision that guides the Obama presidency, it seems to be one of utter cynicism: a recognition that whatever seems urgent today will soon be overshadowed by another urgent issue, accompanied by a quiet confidence that eventually everything will be forgotten.

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Comments

  1. 2. … In an era where wars all appear to be wars of choice, it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamental meaning of a war of necessity: there appears to be no alternative… Likewise, it’s possible to believe that fighting against ISIS is a necessity, even if it remains unclear whether this fight will be successful.

    You might think that this is a war of necessity, but most of the countries bordering ISIS disagree with you. (Last week you accused many Americans of having an ‘island mentality’ because we’re reluctant to get involved in this civil war. If that’s true, we shared that island with the vast majority of humanity, including the Sunni Arabs and Turks).

    In the past 100 years, America has never gone to war with so few allies. (Even Bush and LBJ had more friends.) Without more support from the Sunni nations most threatened by ISIS, we don’t have a chance, and we’re fools to try. The only way you can justify choosing this war when we face such impossible odds is to argue — like Thatcher — that “there is no alternative.” But isn’t it possible that the world is right and our leaders are wrong?

  2. “If there’s a vision that guides the Obama presidency, it seems to be one of utter cynicism: a recognition that whatever seems urgent today will soon be overshadowed by another urgent issue, accompanied by a quiet confidence that eventually everything will be forgotten.”

    I’m not yet convinced of this dark view. The visible facts admit of other interpretations. The most favorable might be this: Obama the person understands the situation quite well, and understands that there is no strategy to be had that will (with some respectably high probability — “don’t to stupid stuff”) exert control over the many interacting self-interested factions playing on each other. I’d be surprised if his military and policy advisors were not telling him this as well — pie-in-the-sky is the province of pols and wooly op-ed writers.

    Therefore, we might guess, he’s trying to find a minimal path that will not, Cheney-and-Bush-like, make the situation much, much worse. Add this to what appears to be a deep native caution, perhaps allied with a paralyzing fear of failure (as you have suggested), and further add his inability to represent himself publicly (running from ‘God and guns’ through ‘we have no strategy’, with a long detour in the PR mess of Obamacare), and what you get is what you now see, without a hint of cynical calculation.

  3. Paul Woodward says:

    There’s a difference between arguing on the one hand that ISIS needs to be destroyed and that that cannot be accomplished without military means and on the other hand arguing that the U.S. has the competence to lead a coalition pursuing that objective. I support the former argument but not the latter.

    Given Baghdadi’s strategic sophistication, my suspicion is that ISIS may in part indeed be baiting the West — but not in the way that those haunted by Iraq fear. I don’t think ISIS wants to martyr itself in the face of Western military might. On the contrary, I think it wants to show that the declared goals of America and its allies are mostly bluster and that Obama’s war will indeed be as “successful” as U.S. operations in Somalia and Yemen, demonstrating ISIS’s capacity to survive and its Islamic state to become more deeply established.

    As far as I can tell, the only strategic choice Obama has made at this point is on his preferred metaphor for describing ISIS — that it is a cancer — a description that betrays his lack of conviction about finding any “cure.”

    If there’s any hope that this fight might accomplish anything, it depends on the slim possibility that it can be led from beneath and that there is at least a tacit recognition from the outside powers involved that this is not all about ISIS.

    What Syria, Libya, and Iraq demonstrate is that the removal of dictatorial power should never be seen as an end in itself. In the absence of a coherent and widely supported vision of what is meant to follow the fall of the dictator, conflict ends up fueling conflict in a perpetual power struggle.