Inconsistencies in public opinion on foreign policy: it’s about the partisan messaging, not the policy
by Jacob Kirsch (Class of ‘22)
Both the Biden and Trump administrations have faced intense scrutiny for controversial foreign policy decisions such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the removal of U.S. forces from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, respectively. However, it can be difficult to separate genuine policy-oriented critiques from sensationalist partisan bloviating. Trump’s decision to suddenly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria in late 2018 drew strong condemnation from policymakers and national security officials across the political spectrum. Trump was similarly chastised for ordering the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Critics argued that killing the chief of the elite Quds Force wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps could lead to Iranian retaliation against U.S. troops and American allies. Nevertheless, the administration justified the killing due to Soleimani’s role in supporting prior and allegedly imminent attacks against U.S. troops in the Middle East.
I wanted to dig deeper into public opinion on these issues regarding the use of military force by asking two questions. Firstly, do Democrats, Republicans, and Independents have meaningfully different normative opinions on when it is appropriate to deploy the U.S. military? Secondly, are these opinions consistent with responses to specific executive branch foreign policy actions (namely the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria)?
To answer these questions, I turned to the 2020 Cooperative Election Study (CES). The CES gave respondents a list of hypothetical uses of the U.S. military and asked respondents to select all the scenarios in which they would support the deployment of U.S. troops. I chose to look in closer detail at three of these hypothetical scenarios that relate closely to controversial foreign policy decisions undertaken by the Trump administration. More specifically, the CES asked if respondents would approve of the use of U.S. military troops to:
1. Destroy a terrorist camp
2. Protect American allies under attack by foreign nations, and/or
3. Help the United Nations uphold international law.
Furthermore, the CES specifically asked participants for their opinion on the previously mentioned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. While Soleimani was a high-ranking Iranian state official, the rationale behind his killing was quite similar to the common arguments in favor of using force to destroy terrorist camps. Just as governments frequently justify strikes against terrorist facilities due to imminent threats to national interests, so too did the Trump administration justify killing General Soleimani due to alleged imminent threats to U.S. troops posed by groups linked to his Quds Force. In this same vein, a central argument for keeping U.S. troops deployed in Syria stemmed from a perceived need to support and defend the United States’ Kurdish allies in northern Syria. Additionally, a U.S. troop presence in Syria would theoretically dissuade the Syrian government from continuing to violate international law by deploying chemical weapons against its own civilians. Thus, comparing normative opinions about the use of force with public opinion on specific policy decisions can illustrate interesting dynamics in the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and electoral politics.
As seen below, Americans across the political spectrum generally concur that U.S. troops should be used to protect American allies under attack by foreign nations. A resounding 80% of Republicans, 75% of Independents, and 77% of Democrats agreed that U.S. troops should be used to defend beleaguered allies. Even though these differences in opinion are not particularly large, they are statistically significant. This question is particularly relevant in light of the seemingly imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the U.S. and Ukraine are not treaty allies, they are strategic partners and enjoy strong diplomatic ties. A Russian invasion of Ukraine could soon force President Biden to make what appears on face value to be a clear decision in terms of public opinion. However, as I demonstrate in the rest of this piece, normative opinions about the use of force often conflict with opinions of specific foreign policy decisions.
As compared to polling on assisting an ally under attack, CES responses are more varied when looking at other potential scenarios. When asked if they would support using U.S. troops to help the United Nations uphold international law (see below), 33 % of Republicans, 44% of Independents, and 64 % of Democrats indicated their support. This information sheds light on an interesting dynamic in foreign policy public opinion: there is markedly less support for helping the U.N. than for helping allies specific to the U.S., and even given these lower levels of support across the political spectrum, there remains a substantial divide along party lines regarding U.S. military assistance to the U.N. While most Democrats supported assisting the U.N., even this support is still far less than Democratic support for defending U.S. allies.
Furthermore, the partisan agreement seen in opinions of using U.S. troops to defend allied states disappears when respondents are asked about Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria. Simply put, support for deploying troops to defend an ally would be consistent with opposition to this decision since removing U.S. troops would be akin to leaving our Kurdish allies out to dry. Only 33 % of Democrats indicated support for the Syria withdrawal, while 67 % disapproved of the decision. This is somewhat consistent with Democratic responses to the troop deployment question — based on that first question, we would expect to see 23% of Democrats support the Syria withdrawal. Independent responses are also somewhat consistent: 56% of Independents supported the Syria withdrawal and 44% disapproved. However, based on troop deployment responses we would expect independents’ support for the Syria withdrawal to be closer to 25%.
Yet the most pronounced inconsistencies between opinions on troop deployment and the withdrawal from Syria come from Republicans. Based on their overwhelming support for deploying troops to protect an ally under attack, we would anticipate nearly 80% disapproval for the Syria withdrawal. However, the numbers tell a nearly opposite story: 73% of Republicans indicated support for the withdrawal, with only 27% disapproving. These widespread inconsistencies are telling — even though normative opinions on defending allies were consistent across the political spectrum, these opinions completely diverged once respondents were asked to assess a specific executive action taken by the Trump administration. Notably, Republicans’ responses shifted the most when compared to their stated normative stances on using the military to support allies. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is as follows: due to President Trump’s often misleading and/or blatantly false statements about the situation in Syria, Republicans overwhelmingly supported his administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces even though it ran counter to widespread Republican support for defending U.S. allies.
Interestingly, these inconsistencies are completely flipped when looking at the questions regarding the destruction of a terrorist camp and the decision to assassinate General Soleimani. It is first important to note that unlike the previous question about troop deployment, there are wider partisan gaps on the initial question of whether U.S. troops should be deployed to destroy a terrorist camp (see chart below). 76% of Republicans, 63% of Independents, and 55% of Democrats supported such a use of force, however Democratic support declined significantly when looking at the assassination of General Soleimani. 80% of Republicans and 53% of Independents supported the targeted strike; Republican support went up by over three percentage points, and independent support fell by approximately ten percent.
However, only 31% of Democrats expressed support for the operation — a swing of nearly 25 percentage points from the 55% of Democrats who indicated support for using the military to destroy a terrorist camp. While it is true that the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani was not the same as destroying a terrorist camp, it is unlikely that the massive swing in Democratic opinion can be attributed solely to the semantics of the survey questions. Instead, it is possible that, as in the case of divergent Republican responses discussed in the previous paragraphs, President Trump’s penchant for impulsive decisions and divisive rhetoric shaped the Democratic perception of General Soleimani’s killing. More generally, partisans will react along partisan lines to the government’s actions — it is not only possible but quite probable that Democrats would have supported Soleimani’s assassination had Joe Biden been the president responsible.
There are significant implications of these findings for policymakers moving forward. Among both Democrats and Republicans, opinions of specific foreign policy decisions often diverge from what individuals claim they would hypothetically support. Despite widespread Republican support for using troops to defend U.S. allies, a nearly identical proportion of Republicans supported President Trump’s decision to abandon the United States’ Kurdish allies by withdrawing American troops from northern Syria. Similarly, over half of Democratic respondents indicated support for using the military to destroy a terrorist camp, yet barely over 30% of Democrats supported the killing of an Iranian general directly responsible for supporting terrorist groups across the Middle East. These data points suggest that backlash to decisions about the use of force may be driven by factors other than just beliefs about when force should be used. Simply put, an individual’s support or lack thereof for executive branch decisions pertaining to the military appears to be driven in large part by party affiliation, and not by consistent normative views about how and when the President should deploy U.S. troops.
Future research on this topic could also focus on media consumption and its role in driving public opinion on the use of the U.S. military. Since most Americans presumably do not closely monitor academic debates on the matter, it is possible that their opinions are based instead on the news coverage and social media attention that events such as the Syria withdrawal receive. For more about recent historical trends in U.S. public opinion on military deployment, refer to my colleague David Wingens’ piece published to the Tufts Public Opinion Lab’s blog.