Iraq conflict: Are Americans isolationist, or just war-weary?

With U.S. fighters pounding Islamic militants in Iraq, war-weary Americans are understandably skeptical and conflicted over the prospect of America once again becoming entangled in a foreign conflict.

Barack Obama has pledged the U.S. will not be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq

An armoured vehicle belonging to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters rushes to a bombing site as smoke rises from airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants outside the city of Irbil, in northern Iraq. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

With U.S. fighters pounding Islamic militants in Iraq, war-weary Americans are understandably skeptical and conflicted over the prospect of America once again becoming entangled in a foreign conflict.

"Leave it alone, that's how I feel," said New York City resident Mel Gomez, a Vietnam veteran, who was visiting the Second World War memorial in Washington, D.C. "We've lost enough lives; let them kill each other. That's what they've been doing all along. Why should we involve ourselves again?"

Eric Steuber, a navy veteran from Minnesota, said the U.S. should never have been in Iraq, but if they are going to intervene now, they need to go all-out, which could include sending in ground troops.

"We're in it to win it or we stay the hell out," he said.

But what's more important, Steuber said, is that it's time for the U.S. to "quit policing the world" and that they should "let every country fend for itself."

It's a sentiment likely held by many Americans, and one that often gives rise to accusations the U.S. is becoming more isolationist. 

In his late night address to the nation last Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama attempted to make it clear that his authorization of force in Iraq was not part of a prolonged military engagement.

'Many of you are rightly concerned'

Indeed, he stressed that in the past, he's "been careful to resist calls to turn time and again to our military."

"I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that,"he said. 

"As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq," he insisted, adding that American combat troops will not be returning to fight there.

Recent surveys seem to suggest an America tiring of foreign engagements. A telephone poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre in July asked 1,805 Americans: "Do you think the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq?"

The survey found that 55 per cent said the U.S. doesn't have a responsibility while 39 per cent said the U.S. does. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus  2.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. 

Another telephone survey by Pew, which interviewed 2,003 adults between Oct. 30 and Nov. 6 of last year, found that 52 per cent agreed the U.S. "should mind it's own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." 

Just 38 per cent disagreed with the statement, Pew found, adding that it was "the most lopsided balance in favour the U.S. minding its own business" in the nearly 50-year history of the measure. That poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

These attitudes may have trickled down politically, even to some elements of the Republican Party, which is considered more hawkish on foreign policy. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul still remains a potential presidential candidate for the party, despite his vocal opposition to American intervention in Iraq.

Americans not isolationist

But isolationism may not be the driving force of such attitudes, say some. Paul himself has rejected such labels, saying in a Politico column that military involvement must be made on an "assessment of what has worked and what hasn’t."

Bruce Jentleson, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and a scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said war-weariness is much different than isolationism.

Jentleson points to 2012 online polling data of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which asked: Do you think it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs? That survey of 1,702 people between May 25 and June 2012 found that 61 per cent said the U.S. should still take an active part, while 38 per cent said the U.S. should "stay out." 

Although the survey is two years old, Jentleson, who is on the advisory board of the council, said a poll coming out in September will show similar results. 

"​The average American — they really get the notion that you can't just cut yourself off from the world. The world is too interconnected for that," said Jentleson, who was also a senior adviser at the State Department from 2009 to 2011.

Americans are not trigger-happy, but they're not totally against the use of force, he added. 

"People don't believe their leaders have a good sense of what they want to accomplish in the world and therefore they're saying, 'If that's the case, limit what you do.' But they're open and available to leaders who say, 'Here's what we need to do.' 

"What they want to know the most — and this is where I think the president hasn't been as effective as he really needs to be: 'Do you have a strategy and does it make sense to me that it has a reasonable chance of succeeding?' "


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