Presidents and policymakers in Washington place tremendous demands on the nation’s all-volunteer military, whether it’s a U.S. Navy carrier group providing tsunami relief on the far side of the Pacific Ocean or special forces units on horseback hunting terrorists in the Hindu Kush. According to a new RealClear Opinion Research poll, Americans support the entire array of these military undertakings — and, for the most part, trust the men and women in uniform to carry them out.
This confidence spans the political spectrum, which is reassuring in a political environment so polarized that war itself is now evaluated through a partisan prism. Asked their views about missions ranging from protecting human rights abroad to defending Taiwan against an invasion from China, significant majorities of registered voters expressed support for all of them.
Highest on the list at (82%) was using the military to protect human rights “like the rights of women, children, religious or ethnic minorities.” Responding to natural disasters was tied for second place at 76% with the more traditional military duty of “curbing aggression” by U.S. adversaries.
“The American electorate is supportive of a wide range of military missions,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling for RealClear Opinion Research. “We found, though, that when asked about how they prefer to see our armed forces deployed, voters are more likely to support use of ‘soft power’ than ‘hard power.’” (Click the chart image to enlarge it.)
This expressed willingness to use military power in support of human rights has limits, however, especially when it runs into the harsh realities of long wars. The dichotomy reveals itself when Americans are asked about ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. By a margin of 52% to 38% (with the rest undecided), voters support President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Certainly, the U.S. military presence there represented an effort at protecting the rights of women, children, religious, or ethnic minorities. But public support wanes even for a goal favored by 82% of Americans when it’s perceived as an endless commitment. The U.S. role in Afghanistan began as a hunt for 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and to punish and replace the Taliban extremists who harbored his terrorists. It eventually devolved into a seemingly permanent occupation while the U.S. tried to impose a working democracy on a tribal society, an elusive goal that entailed costly efforts to liberate Afghan women and girls. For most Americans, 20 years was enough.