The American Public on the 9/11 Decade: A Study of American Public Opinion

Steven Kull and
Steven Kull
Steven Kull Senior Research Fellow and Director, Program for Public Consultation, School of Public Policy - University of Maryland
Shibley Telhami

September 8, 2011

These are a summary of findings of a new poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. The poll of 957 Americans has a margin of error +/-3.2% and was fielded August 19-25 by Knowledge Networks.

Six in ten Americans believe that that the United States weakened its economy by overspending in its responses to the 9/11 attacks. In particular, respondents felt this was especially true of the U.S. mission in Iraq. Two out of three Americans perceive that over the decade since 9/11, U.S. power and influence in the world has declined. This view is highly correlated with the belief that the United States overspent in its post-9/11 response efforts – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 9/11, American views of Islam have grown more negative. However, views of Arab and Muslim people are moderately warm, and majorities continue to feel that the attacks of 9/11 do not represent mainstream thinking within Islam and that it is possible to find common ground between Islam and the West.

When asked what they think of the Obama administration’s plan to strengthen the Afghan army while reducing U.S. forces and attempting negotiations with the Taliban, 69% say they approve. Though 50% of Americans think the United States over invested in the Afghan war, 57% still see the initial decision to enter Afghanistan as the right thing to do. At this point, a large majority (73%) wants the United States to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, but less than half (44%) want troops withdrawn completely.

Fifty-five percent say that the United States has spent too many resources in the Iraq war, while a plurality of 49% called the Iraq war a mistake (45% right decision). This criticism is a bit lower than other polls that asked similar questions in 2010 and found a majority ranging from 51 to 62% saying that it was not the right decision.

Support for the decision to go to war is highly correlated with beliefs held by substantial and undiminishing minorities that Iraq was providing support to al Qaeda (46%) and either had a WMD program or actual WMDs (47%). Among those with such beliefs, large majorities say the war was the right thing while among those without such beliefs large majorities have the opposite views.

A modest majority (53%) believes that the U.S. should withdraw its troops according to schedule even if the Iraqi government asks the US to stay another year.

In October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, an ABC News poll showed that a plurality of Americans (47%) had a favorable opinion of Islam, while 39% had an unfavorable response. Over the subsequent years, when the same question was asked, the favorable number declined. In the current poll, only a third (33%) had a generally favorable opinion, while six in ten had an unfavorable opinion.

However a 53% majority say they have a favorable view of Arab people and a plurality of 49% say they have a favorable view of Muslim people in general.

In addition, a stable majority continues to think that the 9/11 attacks do not represent mainstream Islam. A robust 73% said the terrorists who conducted the 9/11 attacks were “part of a radical fringe”; only 22% said the terrorists’ views are close to the mainstream teachings of Islam. Fifty-nine percent say it is possible to find common ground between Islam and the West (down from 68% in a 2001 PIPA poll taken shortly after 9/11).

Americans’ most widely held picture now of the ongoing events of the Arab Spring is that they are about both a struggle for democracy and an effort by Islamist groups to seek political power—a view held by 45%. Thirty-three percent said the uprisings are “more about ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy,” while 17% thought the Arab Spring is “more about Islamist groups seeking political power.”

A majority (56%) feels the events of the Arab Spring have not increased the risk of a terrorist attack on the United States, including 10% who think it has decreased the risk. About a third (36%) thinks the risk has increased because of the uprisings.

Six in ten see the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of the five most important issues for U.S. interests. A clear majority (61%) says that the United States should not take sides in its efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while just 27% want the United States to lean toward Israel (5% toward Palestinians).

The partisan divide here is strong: while large majorities of Democrats (71%) and independents (67%) want the U.S. to not lean toward either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is true of just 45% of Republicans, while 50% say the United States should lean toward Israel.