Are Airstrikes a Slippery Slope to Full-Blown Entanglement in Iraq?

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Americans are afraid Iraq is like quicksand: dip a toe in and next thing you know, you’ll be neck deep in another war. This is especially concerning for those who see that our economy is still more than a little gritty with sand; recovering does not mean recovered. But that doesn’t mean that President Barack Obama’s recent airstrikes have been met with with a wave of disapproval. In fact, according to August 14-17 Pew Research poll, 54 percent of¬†Americans are supportive of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq, compared to 31 percent who disapprove.

A clear majority do show concern that the U.S. will “go too far getting involved in [the] situation” at 51 percent, with 32 percent saying they worry the U.S. won’t go far enough to stop militants, and 16 percent saying both, neither, or that they don’t know. Compared to other nations the U.S. considered military involvement with, public opinion was polled at nearly the lowest for Iraq in Gallup‘s most recent poll, June 20-21. Compared to 1991, when 55 percent were in favor of potential American military actions in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, or 2003, when 64 percent were in favor, 39 percent were in favor of action in Iraq as of June. The only country Americans were less in favor of military action in was Syria in early September of 2013.

It could be that the phrasing of this poll was vague enough to conjure fears of boots on the ground in Iraq — something Americans are more sensitive to than less direct involvement like airstrikes. “Military action” could mean anything up to and including invasion, meaning American men and women might go overseas in large numbers once again, something the president has specifically said won’t happen at present.

Partisanship of Opinions

It may be one of the few times Republicans are actually more favorable toward the president’s decisions than his own party. This is notable given the partisanship and divided nature of Congress and politicians these last few months (and years). Republicans show 71 percent support of airstrikes against forces in Iraq according to Pew Research, with only 14 percent not supporting them. Democrats, on the other hand, show 54 percent approval and 35 percent disapproval. Republicans are more likely to feel a sense of responsibility to aid Iraq, while Democrats have seen this percentage rise from 35 percent in July to 43 percent in August, but are not comparable.

Additionally, the younger generation is less likely to say they approve of airstrikes, with 45 percent approval for 18-29 year olds compared to 63 percent for 50-64 year olds. Interestingly, withdrawal from Iraq is seeing less approval now than in 2011 across both parties, according to Gallup, though there’s still a very distinct partisan difference of course. Republicans have seen a change from 43 percent approving of the withdrawal to 33, while Democrats saw a change from 96 to 87 percent, indicating that perhaps the increased violence and instability there has led more to see the withdrawal in a negative light, especially given the likelihood the U.S. is not fully hands off at this point.

Is It a Slippery Slope?

In the sense that there’s always more the U.S. could do in Iraq, and the president will likely have increasing calls on him to act, yes, it’s a slippery slope. But in the sense that one could intentionally begin gathering speed and tumble down into a situation without forethought, Iraq is not a slippery slope. The president realizes two things — the first being that the American public is not prepared economically or mentally for another foray into Iraq. International disapproval would also be high. Comparatively, his present activity has been met with a degree of international praise, and careful majority approval from the public, as well as the opposing party. Doing more would likely lead to Democratic ire, but at present there seems to be a careful balance that could be maintained.

That said, his named objective of “protecting Americans in Iraq” is both comforting and concerning. It’s concerning because a great deal of activity can fall under that category, but comforting because it at least narrows our activity to regions in which Americans are placed, forcing the president to at least be targeted with activity, as we saw with airstrikes near Erbil. “Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead on the ground and performed with courage and determination. So this operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together in taking the fight to ISIL,” said Obama. His promise that, should this continue, America will offer more aid suggests that U.S. involvement will hinge on the greater efforts coming from Iraqi efforts with U.S. firepower.

But by becoming involved, are we making ourselves a target? Realistically, the United States, ISIL, and other militant groups we would instigate already have hostile relations with the U.S., making efforts to slow their progression or lighten the humanitarian harm — as with the Yazidis — unlikely to make things worse at this point.

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