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The American people to its leaders: Ground troops against ISIS and a stronger national defense

William A. Galston

This post was updated on February 23, 2015 to reflect additional survey data. 

Since the war in Iraq, the American people have shied away from major commitments of ground troops in global hot spots, and they have been lukewarm at best about the level of spending needed to sustain our military forces.

Two surveys released today suggest the public sentiment is shifting in ways that could affect both future policy decisions and the 2016 presidential campaign.

The guiding principle of the Obama administration’s policy may be summed up simply: No boots on the ground. Advisors and Special Forces as needed, but no large and long-term deployments of ground forces. That principle has shaped the administration’s response to events in Libya and, more recently, to the rise of ISIS.

But according to today’s CBS Poll, the American people have shifted away from their former caution and favor the use of American ground forces to combat ISIS. As recently as last September, only 39% favored that course, while 55% were opposed. Today, 57% favor ground forces; only 39% remain opposed.

This change takes on added significance against the backdrop of what has not changed. Last fall, fully 64% of the people already believed that ground troops would be necessary to remove the threat of ISIS. (A statistically identical 65% think so today.) But now, far fewer Americans are content with a strategy that they don’t think will get the job done. ISIS’ horrible torture and execution of innocent civilians in full view of the world has increased Americans’ sense of urgency about confronting this threat.

Will we have the means to combat ISIS and meet other security challenges around the world, including an increasingly aggressive Russia? A Gallup survey released today indicates rising public concern that we won’t. As recently as 2012, 54% of Americans were confident that the strength of our national defense was about right, compared to 32% who worried that it wasn’t strong enough. But today, 44% believe that our defense isn’t strong enough, versus 42% who continue to think that it is.

This shifting assessment has direct consequences for policy. Today, 34% of the people say that we are spending too little on national defense—the highest since 2001. The increase in support for higher defense spending is broad-based—up 14 points among Republicans since 2012, 11 points among Independents, and 7 points among Democrats.

Still, polarization continues. 56% of Republicans think we need to spend more on defense; only 17% of Democrats agree.

Nonetheless, the widespread sense that chaos is overcoming order around the world in ways that directly threaten the American people appears to be reshaping public sentiment in the direction of a more muscular foreign and defense policy than the Obama administration has pursued up to now. Republicans are already positioned to respond. For her part, former Secretary of State and likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton will have to decide how she can reconcile shifting public sentiments and the ardent convictions of the Democratic base with each other and with her own views.

Update 2/23/15: A Pew Research Center survey released on Monday, February 23 provides additional evidence for a shift in U.S. public sentiment toward more hawkish views.  Pew finds that support for sending arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government in Kiev has risen by 11 percentage points since last April.  Although not a majority, 41 percent of the people now favor such a course, up from just 30 percent ten months ago. 49 percent now support U.S. training for Ukrainian troops, and 60 percent (up from 53 percent last April) endorse tougher sanctions against Russia.

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