March 14, 2011

Public Wary of Military Intervention in Libya

Broad Concern that U.S. Military is Overcommitted

Overview

The public by a wide margin says the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting between government forces and anti-government groups in Libya. And while opinion is divided over enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, this view is undercut by the fact that Americans overwhelmingly oppose bombing Libyan military air defenses.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 10-13 among 1,001 adults, finds that 63% say the United States does not have a responsibility to act in Libya; fewer than half as many (27%) say the U.S. has this responsibility. Opinion about U.S. responsibility to take action in Libya is comparable to views about the conflict between Serbs and Bosnians in 1995; just 30% said the U.S. had a responsibility in that case. By contrast, far more Americans said the U.S. had a responsibility to take action in Kosovo in 1999 and in the Darfur crisis of 2007.

Reflecting the public’s reluctance about U.S. involvement in Libya, barely half (51%) favor increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Libya. The public is divided over the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone – 44% favor this action while 45% are opposed. Yet just 16% favor bombing Libyan air defenses – 77% oppose bombing the sites. And large majorities reject providing arms to anti-government groups (69%) and sending troops into Libya (82%).

Thinking about the Middle East more generally, Americans see regional stability as more important than increasing democracy. In a separate survey conducted March 8-13, 52% say it is more important to have stable governments in the Middle East even if there is less democracy; 38% say it is more important to have democratic governments in the region, even if there is less stability.

Democrats are evenly divided over priorities for the Middle East: 47% say it is more important to have stable governments while nearly as many (43%) say it is more important to have stability. By wider margins, Republicans (58% to 33%) and independents (52% to 38%) say it is more important to have stability.

Arguments Against and For Using Force

Roughly half of Americans (51%) say that the best argument for not using military force in Libya is that U.S. military forces are already overcommitted. Far fewer (19%) say the best argument for not using force is that opposition groups in Libya may be no better than the current government or that Libya is not of vital interest to the United States (13%).

Opinions about the arguments against the use of force are similar among those who say the U.S. has a responsibility to act in Libya and those who disagree. Roughly half in each group say the strongest argument for not using force is that the U.S. military is overstretched.

The most often cited argument for using military force in Libya is that it is important to show that America backs democracy. Roughly a third (32%) say this is the strongest argument for using force. Roughly one-in-five (21%) say the best argument is that removing Col. Qaddafi from power will win the support of the Libyan people while about the same number (20%) says the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop the violence.

Those who say the United States has a responsibility to act in Libya are far more likely to cite the moral obligation argument than are those who say the U.S. has no responsibility. Nearly four-in-ten (39%) of those who see a responsibility for the U.S. in Libya say the best argument for using force is that the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop the violence. That compares with just 13% of those who say the U.S. has no responsibility to do something in Libya.

Few Say U.S. Has Responsibility to Act

The view that the United States does not have a responsibility to act in Libya is shared widely across demographic and political groups. Majorities across gender, age and educational groups say the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting there.

Just 33% of Democrats say the U.S. has a responsibility to take action in Libya, as do 27% of Republicans and 24% of independents. Slightly more than a third (36%) of those who are following news from Libya very closely say the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the fighting there. That compares with just 23% of those who are following news from Libya less closely.

Cite this publication: “Public Wary of Military Intervention in Libya.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 14, 2011) http://www.people-press.org/2011/03/14/public-wary-of-military-intervention-in-libya/, accessed on July 22, 2014.