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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.

Even though the Afghanistan withdrawal was negotiated by Donald Trump and carried out by Joe Biden — meaning it was literally a bipartisan decision — deep partisan divides revealed themselves in the survey, with Republicans being far more critical of the current commander-in-chief than were Democrats.

While much of this gap is attributable to our own brand of tribal politics, the chaotic and deadly nature of the U.S. retreat is also driving Republicans’ attitudes.

“It was a surrender and not a withdrawal,” one 63-year-old Republican poll respondent commented. “Biden left Americans behind, he armed terrorists, and got 13 of our service members killed.”

But it wasn’t only Republicans who expressed this view of Biden. “The way he handled it was terrible,” said a 47-year-old female independent from New Jersey.

“The way they did it,” added a male Democrat, 64, from Pennsylvania.

Other findings from the RealClear survey also suggest that the Trump-Biden decision to quit Afghanistan would be even more popular had the evacuation gone more smoothly. Queried in an open-ended question about why they opposed the withdrawal, fully 40% of respondents gave some version of “bad planning/failed execution/happened too fast.” Another 18% cited Americans or allies being left behind. Only 14% expressed worries about the Taliban coming to power or the U.S. abandoning the Afghan people. Even fewer (12%) mentioned terrorism or national security concerns.

In other words, Biden (and Trump) appear to have read the mood of the electorate properly.

Other highlights of the most recent survey include the following:

    • Pronounced generational gaps characterize voters’ views of foreign policy and the military. China, for instance, was named as America’s most significant foreign adversary (from list of seven choices) based on strong feelings from Republicans and older voters. Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z are more likely to list terrorist groups and the Taliban. Another example: By a margin of more than 2-to-1, Millennials and “Zoomers” favor teaching critical race theory at the U.S. military academies, while a majority of the Silent Generation/Baby Boomer cohort are opposed.
    • A majority of respondents say the divided nature of American politics “makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the military to do its job well, win wars and defend America’s interest around the world.” Democrats, led by African Americans, are more willing to believe the military can find ways to remain above the fray, but even among Democrats, the concern is widespread.
    • Doubts are more pronounced as voters are asked to go up the chain of command. Asked whether they trust the rank-and-file military to “do the right thing when it comes to making military decisions,” the trust is overwhelming: Some 74% of all voters answered affirmatively, led by Republicans (83%). When the same question was asked about “the generals,” this trust declined precipitously — to 55%. It went down even further when the question was phrased to ask about “the Pentagon” (47%) and, predictably, even more when the current or previous command-in-chief’s name was invoked (39% for both Biden and Trump). Congress is even lower: 34% for Democrats on Capitol Hill; 31% for Republicans.
    • As for altering the dynamic in which 1% of Americans do all of our fighting, majorities of voters support the status quo — regardless of their political affiliation. Asked about bringing back the draft, 51% of Americans say no, with only 33% in support.

“Although young voters — those who would be most impacted — oppose the draft 61% to 24%, this issue is one of the few in which Democrats and Republicans are almost completely aligned,” noted Della Volpe. “Opposition to the draft is steadfast.” 

What Lincoln Foresaw

When members of this all-volunteer military force are performing humanitarian missions with unrivaled speed and know-how, they show America to its best advantage. This was certainly the case when an armada of ships in the U.S. Navy’s Lincoln Strike Group, including the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, brought fresh water, food, and medicine to thousands of people stranded and battered by the 2004 tsunami that wreaked such death and carnage in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. This is the kind operation that unites Americans across party lines.

Thinking of it that way, the aircraft carrier is well-named. Abraham Lincoln knew earlier than most of his countrymen that even in the mid-19th century, America was a nation so powerful that anyone who attacked it wouldn’t get very far.

That didn’t mean there was nothing to fear. In January 1838, a 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln exhorted Americans to not let their political passions lead them to mob rule.

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” he asked in a speech in Springfield, Ill. “Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic military giant to step the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the Earth (our own excepted) in the military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, would not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.”

No. The threat, Lincoln told us, was from domestic terrorism. From mob rule, and a willingness to act lawlessly to further our political aims. All these years later, Americans sense the truth of this warning.

Asked in the RealClear Opinion Research survey to name the United States “most formidable” current foreign adversary, voters dutifully ranked China first (28%), followed by terrorist groups “like ISIS or al-Qaeda” (20%); the Taliban (10%); Russia (8%); cyber-terrorists (7%); North Korea (6%); and Iran (2%). This makes sense. But when asked an open-ended question without mentioning the foreign angle, the answers were different, and revealing.

Asked “What do you believe to be the greatest threat to America today?” the highest percentage answer (14%) was Islamicist terror groups such as ISIS and the Taliban. But four of the next five answers were domestic in nature and the fifth, the coronavirus pandemic, is both a foreign and domestic threat. And when asked directly whether they were more concerned about foreign or domestic threats facing the country, 58% said domestic, with 42% answering foreign.

We are worried, in other words, about our neighbors and our dysfunctional politics. “The greatest threat to America today is political extremism,” replied a 57-year-old Georgia woman, a political independent. “It seems we can't accomplish anything in a bipartisan way. Our energies and resources are spent in arguments rather than rational conversations about complex and nuanced issues. This domestic bickering leaves us vulnerable to threats from abroad.”

Although they tend to point fingers across the political divide rather than at those on their own side, many Democrats and Republicans concur.

“I believe that the greatest threat to America today comes from within our own boundaries,” added a male Republican, 59, from North Carolina. “This instability does not create the strong social fabric that is necessary when being faced with political attacks from outside our boundaries.”

“The greatest threat to America,” warned a 22-year-old female Democrat from Ohio, “is America.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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