When and Why Should The United States Intervene Militarily?

New York, N.Y. – April 20, 2011 – A new BBC World News America/Harris Poll examines American attitudes to U.S. military intervention in other countries, from Afghanistan and Bosnia to Libya and Darfur, and finds that there are widespread disagreements about almost all of the six countries where the U.S. intervened and three countries where it did not. However there was widespread agreement that the U.S. should not be the world’s policeman (67% to 11%) and that each case where intervention is possible should be considered separately rather than using a predetermined set of policies (63% vs. 25%). The poll also found that there are 6 circumstances where a majority of the public believes that in general it is right for the U.S. to intervene militarily.

These are some of the findings of a new BBC World News America/Harris Poll of 2,483 U.S. adults surveyed online between April 8 and 12, 2011 by Harris Interactive.

The main findings of the poll include:

  • Only 31% of all adults feel that President Obama has explained clearly when the U.S. should and should not use military force. Many are not sure (25%), while 44% believe he has not been clear;
  • Large numbers of people (22% or more) are not sure whether or not it was right to intervene in six countries where U.S. troops or airplanes have been used, and in some cases almost half the country is unsure (47% are unsure about Bosnia and 47% are unsure about Somalia);
  • A sizable 47% to 27% plurality believes that intervening in Afghanistan was the right thing to do but opinion is more or less evenly divided on U.S. intervention in Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Kosovo;
  • Even larger numbers have no opinions on three cases where the U.S. did not use military force -the Ivory Coast (53% not sure), Darfur (45% not sure) and Rwanda (also 45% not sure). Of those with opinions, a 32% to 15% plurality believes the U.S. was right to not intervene in the Ivory Coast, while opinions are equally split on Darfur and Rwanda;
  • There is widespread support for military intervention under the following circumstances: to prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S. (79%), to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists (78%), if a strong and friendly ally is attacked (74%), to prevent a country that is hostile to the United States from building nuclear weapons (71%), if a dictator is killing large numbers of their own people (66%) and to overthrow a dictator who is very hostile to the U.S. (55%);
  • Only 33% favor the use of U.S. force to change a dictatorship into a democracy;
  • The replies concerning Libya are somewhat contradictory-while only 32% of the public think it was right to intervene there, 40% think the president should have intervened earlier (20%) or that he intervened at the right time (20%), with 25% saying he should not have intervened at all; and
  • With one exception, the majorities in favor of using U.S. military force are conditional on the U.S. having strong support from other countries. The exception: a 61% majority believes that the U.S. should use force to prevent terror attacks on the U.S. even if it is not strongly supported by allies. Far fewer think the U.S. should use force unilaterally to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists (46%), to prevent a hostile country from building nuclear weapons (31%), or if a dictator is killing large numbers of his own people (22%).

So What?

While the public is split on many of the issues addressed in this poll, the big picture is rather clear. In the abstract, most Americans favor the use of force to intervene in other countries under some circumstances but not others. With rare exception however, most people do not favor the unilateral use of force; having strong allies is very important to many people and the approach is pragmatic; they believe each and every case should be considered on its merits rather than by a set of rules or principles. In most of the specific cases where the U.S. has or has not intervened over the last 20 years the public is split, with the strongest plurality in favor of intervention regarding Afghanistan and the strongest opposition regarding Iraq.

 

TABLE 1

HOW CLEARLY HAS PRESIDENT OBAMA EXPLAINED HIS POLICIES ON WHEN TO INTERVENE MILITARILY

Some people have used the words ‘The Obama Doctrine’ to describe President Obama’s explanation of when the United States should, or should not, intervene militarily in other countries. How clearly do you think he has explained this policy?

Base: All U.S. adults

Total

Gender

Education

Male

Female

H.S. or less

Some college

College grad +

%

%

%

%

%

%

Clearly (NET)

31

35

27

28

28

39

Very clearly

11

13

8

8

11

14

Somewhat clearly

21

23

19

20

17

25

Not clearly (NET)

44

49

38

41

49

44

Not very clearly

21

21

21

20

21

22

Not at all clearly

23

28

17

20

27

21

Not sure

25

15

34

31

23

17

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 2A

ASSESSMENT OF WHERE THE U.S. HAS INTERVENED

Below is a list of places where the United States has intervened in the last two decades, using military force. Do you think it was right or wrong that we did so in each of these places?

Base: All U.S. adults

Right

Wrong

Not sure

%

%

%

Afghanistan

47

27

26

Iraq

36

42

22

Bosnia

32

21

47

Libya

32

32

35

Somalia

29

24

47

Kosovo

28

21

50

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 2B

ASSESSMENT OF WHERE THE U.S. HAS INTERVENED

Below is a list of places where the United States has intervened in the last two decades, using military force. Do you think it was right or wrong that we did so in each of these places?

Summary of those saying right

Base: All U.S. adults

Total

Age

Gender

18-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Male

Female

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Afghanistan

47

42

45

53

50

54

41

Iraq

36

31

33

42

38

40

32

Bosnia

32

27

31

38

35

43

23

Libya

32

29

32

33

35

39

26

Somalia

29

28

26

33

30

36

22

Kosovo

28

26

26

31

30

39

19

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 3A

ASSESSMENT OF WHERE THE U.S. HAS NOT INTERVENED

Below is a list of places where the United States has not intervened militarily. Do you think it was right or wrong that we did not do so in each of these places?

Base: All U.S. adults

Right

Wrong

Not sure

%

%

%

Ivory Coast

32

15

53

Darfur

28

27

45

Rwanda

28

27

45

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 3B

ASSESSMENT OF WHERE THE U.S. HAS NOT INTERVENED

Below is a list of places where the United States has not intervened militarily. Do you think it was right or wrong that we did not do so in each of these places?

Summary of those saying right

Base: All U.S. adults

Total

Age

Gender

18-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Male

Female

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Ivory Coast

32

25

30

32

39

40

25

Darfur

28

22

27

26

35

34

22

Rwanda

28

20

28

28

34

34

22

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 4A

WHEN SHOULD THE U.S. USE MILITARY FORCE

President Obama has said that if necessary, he would use military force to protect the vital interests and security of the United States, but that on some occasions he would only do so if the United States was strongly supported by other countries. For each of the following please indicate what you think the United States should do.

Base: All U.S. adults

Intervene even without strong allies

Intervene only with strong allies

Not intervene

Not sure

%

%

%

%

To prevent terrorist attacks against the United States

61

18

5

16

To prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists

46

32

4

18

If a strong and friendly ally is attacked

39

35

5

21

To prevent a country that is hostile to the United States from building nuclear weapons

31

40

8

21

If a dictator is killing large numbers of their own people

22

45

14

20

To overthrow a dictator who is very hostile to the United States

21

33

23

23

To change a dictatorship into a democracy

5

28

42

25

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 4B

WHEN SHOULD THE U.S. USE MILITARY FORCE

President Obama has said that if necessary, he would use military force to protect the vital interests and security of the United States, but that on some occasions he would only do so if the United States was strongly supported by other countries. For each of the following please indicate what you think the United States should do.

Summary of those saying intervene (intervene without strong allies and intervene only with strong allies)

Base: All U.S. adults

Total

Age

Gender

18-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Male

Female

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

To prevent terrorist attacks against the United States

79

69

69

84

90

85

74

To prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists

78

70

69

81

90

84

73

If a strong and friendly ally is attacked

74

67

66

75

84

82

67

To prevent a country that is hostile to the United States from building nuclear weapons

71

61

61

74

84

77

65

If a dictator is killing large numbers of their own people

66

63

56

68

76

71

62

To overthrow a dictator who is very hostile to the United States

55

51

46

58

61

58

51

To change a dictatorship into a democracy

33

27

31

33

40

37

28

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 5

SHOULD THE U.S. HAVE CLEAR POLICIES OR DEAL WITH SITUATIONS INDIVIDUALLY

Do you think the United States should…?

Base: All U.S. adults

Total

Education

Age

H.S. or less

Some college

College grad +

18-34

35-44

45-54

55+

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Consider each case for using military force individually

63

56

66

69

61

58

63

67

Have a clear set of policies to determine when the U.S. should use military force

25

28

25

22

23

27

25

27

Not sure

12

16

9

9

16

16

12

6

Note: Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 6

SHOULD THE U.S. ACT AS THE WORLD’S POLICEMAN

Would you like to see the United States act as ‘the world’s policeman’, protecting democratic states and punishing those that are brutal or repressive?

Base: All U.S. adults

Total

Education

Age

Gender

H.S. or less

Some college

College grad +

18-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Male

Female

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Yes

11

10

13

10

12

13

10

8

13

8

No

67

63

68

71

63

63

61

76

70

64

Not sure

23

27

19

19

25

24

29

16

17

28

Note: Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding

 

TABLE 7

OPINIONS ON PRESIDENT OBAMA’S ACTIONS IN LIBYA

What would you say about President Obama’s decision to use the U.S. Air Force and missiles in Libya?

Base: All U.S. adults

Total

Age

Gender

18-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Male

Female

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

He should have intervened earlier

20

14

17

21

26

26

14

He intervened at the right time

20

17

21

18

25

23

18

He should have intervened later

2

4

3

2

1

3

2

He should not have intervened at all

25

25

22

28

26

28

23

Not sure

32

41

36

31

22

20

43

Note: Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding

 

Methodology

This BBC World News America/Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between April 8 and 12, 2011 among 2,483 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Where appropriate, this data were also weighted to reflect the composition of the adult online population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words margin of error as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of Harris Interactive.

The Harris Poll® #50, April 20, 2011

By Humphrey Taylor, Chairman The Harris Poll

 

About BBC AMERICA

BBC AMERICA brings audiences a new generation of award-winning television featuring news with a uniquely global perspective, provocative dramas, razor-sharp comedies and life-changing makeovers. BBC AMERICA pushes the boundaries to deliver high quality, highly addictive and eminently watchable programming to viewers who demand more. BBC AMERICA is distributed by Discovery Networks. It is available on digital cable and satellite TV in more than 64 million homes. For up-to-the-minute information on BBC AMERICA, forthcoming U.S. premieres, art work and news from the channel, log on to www.press.bbcamerica.com .