April 5, 2011

Goal of Libyan Operation Less Clear to Public

Top Middle East Priority: Preventing Terrorism

Overview

Two weeks after U.S. and NATO forces began military operations in Libya, the public’s reaction to the situation remains mixed. Half (50%) say the United States and its allies made the right decision in conducting airstrikes in Libya, while 37% say it was the wrong decision – a balance of opinion virtually unchanged from a week ago.

However, despite President Obama’s speech to the nation explaining the justifications for military engagement last Monday, an increasing percentage say that the military action lacks a clear goal – 57% today, up from 50% a week ago. And by an overwhelming 66% to 25% margin, most say they would oppose the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to the anti-government groups in Libya.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 30-April 3 among 1,507 adults, finds public ambivalence about the implications of the broader changes in the Middle East.

About four-in-ten (42%) believe that the recent protests and calls for change in a number of Middle Eastern countries will lead to lasting improvements for people living in these countries, while about as many (43%) say they will not. And by a 35% to 24% margin, more say these changes will be bad than good for the United States, with another 28% saying events in the Middle East will not have much effect on the U.S.

In views of U.S. priorities for the Middle East, fully 81% say that preventing the spread of terrorism should be a very important goal of U.S. policy. Large majorities also say that preventing attacks on civilians and keeping oil prices low should be very important goals (67% each).

But there is less consensus when it comes to America’s role in encouraging the spread of democracy in the region. Just 42% say this should be a very important goal of U.S. policy in the Middle East. And just 39% say helping to protect Israel should be a very important policy goal for the United States.

Partisan Fissures Emerge over Libya

While the overall balance of opinion about the Libyan air strikes has remained stable, the issue is eliciting a decidedly partisan reaction for the first time. Over just the past week, Republican opposition to the air strikes has grown substantially – 41% now say it was the wrong decision, up from 29% a week ago.

By contrast, Democratic support for the airstrikes has increased – 59% now say it was the right decision, up from 49% last week. As a result, while Republicans were at least as supportive of the decision to take military action in Libya a week ago, there is now a substantial divide along partisan lines.

Meanwhile, doubts about the objectives of the Libya action have grown across party lines, as the number of Republicans, Democrats and independents who say the allied action has a clear goal has declined. Only about a quarter of Republicans (26%) and independents (27%) now say there is a clear goal for the airstrikes, down significantly from last week (41%, 35% respectively).
And the balance of opinion among Democrats has turned negative, with just 39% saying the airstrikes have a clear goal, and 49% saying they do not.

Reactions to Middle East Upheavals

With news about protests and political changes in numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa, there is little agreement about the long-term impact of these changes for the region and the United States.

Views of the Middle Eastern protests and changes are split along partisan lines, with Democrats more optimistic about the direction the region is headed, and Republicans more pessimistic.

By a 52% to 33% margin, Democrats are more likely to believe that recent events will lead to lasting improvements for people living in Middle Eastern countries.  By almost exactly the same margin (52% to 32%) Republicans tend to believe that they will not.  Democrats are split evenly over whether changes in the Middle East will end up being good (31%) or bad (32%) for the United States. Among Republicans, twice as many see the changes as bad for the U.S. (40%) as good (20%).

Differing Middle East Policy Goals

There is widespread agreement that stopping the spread of terrorism and preventing attacks on civilians should be top priorities in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. But Republicans are much more likely than Democrats or independents to view keeping oil prices low and helping to protect Israel as top policy priorities.

Three-quarters of Republicans (75%) say keeping oil prices low should be a very important goal for U.S. policy in the region, compared with 65% of Democrats and 63% of independents.
Keeping oil prices low also is viewed as very important by more of those with low incomes (77% of those with family incomes of less than $30,000) than those with higher incomes (57% of those with incomes of $75,000 or more).

There is an even wider partisan divide over the importance of helping to protect Israel. Half of Republicans (51%) say helping to protect Israel should be a very important goal for U.S. policy in the Middle East, compared with 34% of Democrats and 36% of independents. Among conservative Republicans, 62% see helping to protect Israel as a top policy concern, more than double the 27% of moderate Republicans who say this.

Nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants (64%) say helping to protect Israel should be a very important policy goal, compared with 34% of white mainline Protestants and 36% of white Catholics.

More Republicans (50%) than Democrats (43%) or independents (37%) also say that encouraging the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be an important goal of U.S. policy. Fostering democracy in the region is a particularly low priority for young people: Just 29% of those under 30 say this should be a top policy goal for the United States, compared with 49% of those 50 and older.

Afghanistan Views Steady

There has been little change in the public’s views about the military effort in Afghanistan in recent months. Currently, 50% say the U.S. military effort is going very well or fairly well, which is comparable with opinions in December (47% very/fairly well) and June (48%) of last year.

Support for keeping U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan until the situation there is stabilized had slipped from 53% last June to 44% in December. The new survey shows little change since then – 50% favor removing U.S. and NATO troops as soon as possible while 44% favor maintaining the troops in Afghanistan until the situation is stabilized.

As was the case in December, Republicans are far more supportive than either independents or Democrats of maintaining U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan until the situation there is stabilized. Currently, 55% of Republicans support keeping the troops in Afghanistan until the situation there is stable, compared with 43% of independents and 40% of Democrats.

The long-range expectations for success in Afghanistan also have shown little change. About half of the public (49%) says it is very likely (10%) or somewhat likely (39%) that Afghanistan can become a country that is stable enough to withstand the threat posed by the Taliban and other extremist groups. Nearly as many (45%) say this is not too likely (29%) or not at all likely (16%). These opinions are little changed from November 2009 (46% likely/47% not likely).

While there are wide partisan differences over maintaining forces in Afghanistan, about half of Democrats (54%) and Republicans (50%) say it is at least somewhat likely that Afghanistan can eventually become a country that withstands the threat from extremist groups. Among independents, 46% say this is at least somewhat likely.