Striking Findings from the New Chicago Council Public Opinion Survey

I was privileged last night to get an advance look at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ new study on public opinion.  I was struck by several things.

First, the report reflects a strong desire to get our own house in order.  Asked the question whether it “is more important at this time for the United States to fix problems at home or address challenges to the United States from abroad,” a stunning 91 percent selected the former, with only 9 percent pointing to the latter.  (In 2008 the numbers were 82-17.)

That said, there is not as much appetite for cutting the defense budget as I would like to see:

When asked whether defense spending should be expanded, kept about the same, or cut back, 43 percent of Americans prefer to keep spending about the same as it is now, a steady position since 2004, with 30 percent saying expand and 27 percent saying cut back. At the same time, Americans do recognize the need for moderation if federal budget cuts are necessary to reduce the deficit. When asked whether the defense budget should be cut along with other programs in an effort to address the federal budget deficit, a majority (58%) favors at least some cuts—less than other programs (29%), about the same as other programs (20%), and greater than other programs (9%). A substantial number (41%), however, say defense should not be cut at all. Along with the 29% who say it should be cut less than other programs, there is a considerable majority that clearly sees defense spending as a high priority.

Second, the report does a good job of highlighting the fact that although a historically high number of Americans (49%) agree with the idea that America should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” this is not, as it is frequently advertised, “isolationism.”  One needs to define what “our own business” is before one can characterize such a belief.

But perhaps the most striking findings, to my mind, pertained to the U.S.-Israel relationship.  On a general question regarding whether various other countries are “very important” to the United States, Israel fell 7 points from the 2008 figure (from 40 percent to 33 percent), but every country except China suffered a decline, except Iraq, South Korea, and Turkey, which stayed the same.  But the report asked a number of specific questions pertaining to Israel–and U.S. policy toward Iran–that produced answers that were surprising to me:

• On the issue of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, Americans are at present reluctant to resort to a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, preferring economic sanctions and diplomacy.  [Only 18 percent support a strike.]

• Very strong majorities do not think it is likely that a military strike would cause Iran to give up trying to have a nuclear program. They also think a strike would likely result in retaliatory attacks against U.S. targets in neighboring states as well as in the United States itself.  [28 percent say it is “not at all likely” and 48 percent say “not very likely” that striking would lead Iran to give up trying to have a nuclear program.]

• If all efforts fail to stop Iran, Americans are about evenly divided on whether to conduct a military strike. [47 percent would favor a strike, 49 percent would oppose.  This surprised me a lot.]

• If Iran were to allow UN inspectors permanent and full access throughout Iran to make sure it is not developing nuclear weapons, a slight majority of Americans believe that Iran should be allowed to produce nuclear fuel for producing electricity. [52 percent would support, 45 percent would oppose, which reflects a slight shift away from allowing Iran enrichment from the findings in 2008.]

But perhaps most striking were these findings, which I would imagine will cause heartburn for Binyamin Netanyahu:

[Americans] also appear to be very wary of being dragged into a conflict prompted by an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In this survey, conducted in June 2010, a clear majority of Americans (56%) say that if Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran were to retaliate against Israel, and the two were to go to war, the United States should not bring its military forces into the war on the side of Israel and against Iran…

[…]

Americans continue to show wariness about defending Israel from an attack by its neighbors. Despite an increase in the percentage of Americans who think military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors is a critical threat (from 39% in 2008 to 45% today), Americans are divided on using U.S. troops to defend Israel if it were attacked by “its neighbors” (50% opposed, 47% in favor, see Figure 52). This question was also asked with a slightly different wording in surveys from 1990 to 2004 (if Arab forces invaded Israel). In none of these surveys was there majority support for an implicitly unilateral use of U.S. troops.

Food for thought.