Americans Ready to Confront ISIS, Opens Door for Iran Negotiations

The American public is becoming more willing to entertain a confrontation with ISIS, a recent poll suggests. But it could, also, provide Obama with breathing room in an effort to finalize an agreement with Iran.

The poll’s author, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, presented polling results of US attitudes towards ISIS and Syria at the Brookings Institute on Thursday.

The results build off of a previously released data set by Telhami. The main talking point from that was, as Jim Lobe reported, “the survey…contains some very interesting data that suggest Islamic State is now seen as a significantly greater threat to the US than Iran.” In short, 70% of those polled said that ISIS was the biggest threat to American interests in the Middle East. The next two were the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at 13% and Iran at 12%.

Some of the information may have changed since the poll was conducted Nov. 14-19. But, after Wednesday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there may be an increase in fear of ISIS or even Al-Qaeda—as the suspects have been linked to both ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And now ISIS expansion seems to be contained, whereas the poll was taken in the wake of a beheading and the ISIS siege on Kobani.

Another poll taken around the same time as Telhami’s drew similar conclusions. A CBS/ORC poll also suggested Americans view ISIS as a serious threat with 73% of respondents saying ISIS was either fairly serious (20%) or very serious (53%). The poll, however, didn’t compare American’s opinions on the threat posed by ISIS with their opinions on the threat posed by Iran. Telhami’s poll is the only recent poll to do so.

But, the interesting tidbits aren’t the linkages to Iran. When asked about deploying ground forces to combat ISIS if airstrikes failed, respondents, in a nearly 60-40 split, opposed the idea. If divided along party lines, Republicans favored boots on the ground (53%), while Democrats and Independents didn’t (36% and 31%).

Those who were in favor of troop deployment were asked to justify their support. Regardless of party affiliation, respondents overwhelmingly believed ISIS was an extension of Al-Qaeda (43%) and ISIS was ruthless (33%) as reasons for putting boots on the ground. The two options actually pertaining to US interests and allies polled at a combined 23%–ISIS is a threat to US allies (7%) and ISIS is a threat to US vital interests (16%).

Americans do, however, favor doing something as opposed to staying out. When asked if they prefer staying out or intervening at the “necessary level,” 57% of Americans chose the latter. Only 39% support staying out completely. “Despite expressing opposition to deploying ground forces, Americans indicate strong feelings about the need to confront ISIS,” Telhami says.

The problem here is that “necessary” was never defined. One respondent could read “necessary” as “boots on the ground,” while others could view it as diplomatic pressure on our regional allies, or some could see it as airstrikes only. The response’s undefined choice lumped various respondents who supported a wide range of differing actions, with differing degrees of involvement into one large group. It gives off the impression that 57% of the nation wants to go war with ISIS, which goes against the results regarding “boots on the ground” discussed above.

But, Telhami does try to explain the public’s “ambivalence.” This stems from concern that while America can defeat ISIS, there’s no guarantee it won’t come back (56%). Another 20% feel that the US can eliminate ISIS altogether, while 23% says there’s no chance the US can defeat ISIS.

The data suggest that Americans are beginning to view Iran as less of a threat than Sunni extremism in the Levant. And as Telhami concludes after the release of his first data set in December, this could continue to give President Obama more room for negotiating with Iran.

Meanwhile Congress remains fixated on ending all diplomatic initiatives, ignoring public sentiment that a) US focus should be on stopping ISIS and b) Congress should be focused on fixing the economy. According to a poll conducted Dec. 7, 9% of respondents view foreign threats as a priority for Congress. Nearly one in three viewed the economy as far more important (29%).

This could bode well for the Obama administration as they move forward trying to find a solution to the nuclear impasse with Iran. The polling would allow them to point to public sentiment when selling negotiations to Congress. It’ll be a tough sell regardless, but having the public on their side will make it all the easier—at the margins at least.

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