Americans may agree with President Obama when he says he won’t send large numbers of US troops to Syria or Iraq, but they don’t see much else to like in the president’s response to advancing Islamist extremists in the two Middle Eastern countries.
Who’s to blame for the vast land grab this month in Iraq by the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which over the weekend declared an Islamic state or caliphate from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala province north of Baghdad in Iraq? Here, too, Americans point a finger at Mr. Obama, saying his failure to address extremist gains in Syria paved the way for the ISIS march through Iraq.
The news is grim for a president who came into office in 2009 vowing to be done with Iraq and move America’s international focus to a booming Asia. Some 69 percent of Americans say the US does not have a clear policy on Iraq. If they were to give the president a letter grade for his handling of the Iraq crisis, a plurality of Americans – 46 percent – would slap him with a D or F (as in failing) grade.
Those sobering findings for the White House are part of a new TIPP poll conducted for The Christian Science Monitor June 24-29.
The poll measured US public opinion less than one month after Obama delivered a foreign policy speech at the West Point Military Academy that was supposed to lay out the president’s foreign policy for the rest of his term and, in particular his response to spreading Islamist militant insurgences from Africa to South Asia.
In the speech, Obama announced a $5 billion counterterrorism assistance plan to help countries address the causes of growing extremism and train security forces to fend off the militants.
But the president’s speech was drowned out by events in Iraq in particular, where ISIS militants from war-ravaged Syria joined with Sunni insurgent groups opposed to the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take control of large portions of northern and western Iraq.
Over half of Americans – 55 percent – say that the failure of the US to contain the three-year-old war in Syria allowed the spread of Al Qaeda-inspired militants to Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
In addition, about the same majority of Americans – 56 percent – say that the US decision to complete the withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 “set the stage” for today’s crisis in Iraq.
The poll of 879 Americans, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent, also debunks the prevailing view that Americans have turned their backs to international issues: Nearly 8 in 10 Americans (79 percent) say they are following the unrest in Iraq either very closely or somewhat closely.
One explanation for that heightened interest could be a sense that the expanding control of territory by a group the US considers to be an international terrorist organization poses a threat to the US. The poll found that just over half of Americans – 53 percent – agree that the seizure by ISIS of Iraqi cities constitutes a “direct threat” to Americans on American soil.
A considerable slice of Americans (44 percent) say they disagree either strongly or somewhat that ISIS poses a direct threat to Americans on US soil. The relatively small 53-to-44 split between Americans who do and don’t view ISIS as a direct threat turns into a wide gulf when party affiliation is taken into consideration.
While 73 percent of Republicans agree that ISIS gains in Iraq put the group in a position to threaten Americans on US soil, far fewer Democrats – 39 percent – take that view.
That partisan divide is particularly wide on the question of Obama’s assertion earlier in June that the failure to leave a residual force of US troops in Iraq after 2011 can be laid at the feet of Prime Minister Maliki, who refused to sign an agreement with the US to leave some troops in Iraq.
More than 80 percent of Republicans (83 percent) say Obama was “not being honest” in pinning responsibility on Maliki, while a much smaller slice of Democrats – 27 percent – say the Democratic president was being dishonest about responsibility for the full US withdrawal.
What to do about Iraq? Some 70 percent agree with Obama that the US should not send ground troops back to Iraq. But Americans have mixed feelings about the course of action the US should be taking.
Slightly less than half of Americans – 49 percent – support launching air strikes against the advancing Sunni insurgents, while a slightly smaller group (47 percent) opposes such action.
A slight majority of Americans (52 percent) say they would oppose the US engaging in diplomacy with the Sunni insurgents. Still, a sizable minority – 43 percent – endorses the idea of dialogue with Iraq’s Sunni insurgents. The poll finds that 30 percent of Republicans support such dialogue.
That support for diplomacy can be read a number of ways – fatigue with the long wars the US has engaged in in the Middle East, or an understanding that the US engaged before with Iraq’s Sunnis.
The support for diplomacy might also provide some solace for Obama, who has long touted a preference for dialogue, even in some cases with America’s adversaries.