Americans aren't as eager to retreat from the Middle East as politicians seem to think

Americans aren't as eager to retreat from the Middle East as politicians seem to think
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More and more politicians on both sides of the aisle appear convinced that U.S. adventurism in the Middle East has been a disaster and that it is time to bring U.S. troops home. President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE could not have been clearer in his most recent State of the Union address, declaring that “we are working to end America’s wars in the Middle East.” His words echoed last year’s address when he said that “great nations do not fight endless wars.”

Democrats, too, are talking about packing up the U.S. presence in the Middle East. Former South Bend, Ind., mayor and U.S. Navy veteran Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street Buttigieg's new book, 'Trust,' slated for October release Biden hires top aides for Pennsylvania MORE said during a debate, “We have got to put an end to endless war,” while Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Progressive activist Ady Barkan endorses Biden, urges him to pick Warren as VP Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits MORE (D-Mass.) explained in the Atlantic that “America should end its military involvement in conflicts in the Middle East and bring our troops home from these endless wars in smart, responsible ways.” Even former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' Trump says he'll wear mask during upcoming trip to Walter Reed Latino group 'Mi Familia Vota' launches M voter turnout campaign targeting swing states MORE, a staunch foreign policy activist, nonetheless has felt obligated to highlight his role in reducing U.S. troops in Iraq during the Obama administration.

But candidates and the president are overstating Americans’ desire for a full-scale retreat from the Middle East, according to a January 2020 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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Conducted just after the U.S. strike that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, the polls show that a majority of Americans support maintaining (45 percent) or increasing (29 percent) the U.S. military presence in the Middle East; fewer than a quarter (24 percent) say reduce. This is fairly stable with opinion in 2018. Support for specific long-term military bases in the region has also grown since last asked in 2014, with majorities now saying the U.S. should have bases in Iraq (55 percent, up from 41 percent in 2014) and Kuwait (57 percent, up from 47 percent in 2014). Nearly as many Americans back keeping bases in Afghanistan (48 percent, up from 43 percent in 2014), with support in each instance cutting across partisan lines.

Americans’ reasoning here is clear. Asked which region is most important to the security interests of the United States, 61 percent of Americans name the Middle East, up from a plurality of 50 percent in 2018. No other region comes close, including Europe (15 percent), Asia (12 percent), Latin American (7 percent), and Africa (1 percent).

Recent conflict with Iran accounts for some, but not all, of these results. More Americans say that the killing of Soleimani makes the United States less safe (47 percent) than more safe (28 percent), and the percentage who say that Iran is the country that poses the greatest threat to the United States has increased three-fold since February 2019 (from 10 percent to 34 percent). But the percentage of Americans who say that Iran’s nuclear program is a critical threat to the United States has just barely increased from 2019 (61 percent vs. 57 percent in 2019), and fewer are now concerned about Iran’s regional influence (50 percent).

The public no doubt worries about terrorism in the region. Since 1998 when the Chicago Council first started asking about the threat from international terrorism, it has ranked as one of the highest threats. Sixty-nine percent of Americans called international terrorism a critical threat in 2019, making the fear second only to concern about cyberattacks. 

But the reality is that Americans are not as eager to bring the troops home as they are often portrayed. Majorities of Americans say that maintaining U.S. military superiority (69 percent), participating in military alliances (74 percent), and stationing troops in allied countries (51 percent) make the United States safer. The fact that far fewer say that intervening militarily (27 percent) makes the United States more safe indicates that they see the U.S. military presence in the region as a way to prevent threats primarily through deterrence rather than through combat.

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In addition, Americans support using force if they sense a direct threat to the United States or allies.

Majorities across party lines support committing U.S. troops to fight against violent Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria (57 percent when last asked in 2018), to defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion (58 percent in 2019) and to defend Baltic NATO allies from a Russian invasion (54 percent in 2019). If anything, support for the use of U.S. troops across a variety of scenarios has risen in recent years.

It is true that American public opinion is highly critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with two-thirds now saying these wars were not worth the cost. But the experiences from these two wars do not seem to be the deciding factor in shaping many Americans’ decisions on whether the U.S. military should stay in the Middle East. The idea that most Americans are ready to pull up stakes and bring soldiers home at a moment’s notice remains particularly stubborn and wrong.

Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @RoguePollster.

John Cookson is research content officer at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.