There's a big new CBS News/New York Times poll out Tuesday morning that makes one thing very clear: Americans are not very pleased with President Obama's handling of foreign policy, particularly in Iraq. But if anyone wants to look at these numbers and make the case that the will of the people is squarely on one side of the crisis—interventionist, isolationist, hawk, dove—they're out of luck.
The poll found that just 36 percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of foreign policy, compared with 58 percent who disapprove. That 58 percent is a 10-point spike over the last month, likely linked to the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The last time the poll asked Americans about Obama's handling of "the situation" in Iraq specifically was in late 2011, shortly before the last U.S. troops withdrew from the country. Back then, the president received a 60 percent approval and 30 percent disapproval rating on Iraq. Now, that's virtually flipped to 37 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval.
But despite his low overall approval, 41 percent of Americans say Obama is doing the right amount to address violence in Iraq, with 29 percent saying he should do more and 22 percent saying he should do less.
The Iraq approval numbers alone suggest something of a noninterventionist trend for Americans—approval is high when we're leaving Iraq, low when we're looking to go back in some capacity; and less than a third of Americans are really agitating for more than Obama's already done. Some other numbers in the poll certainly back that up. Just 37 percent of Americans think the U.S. should take the lead in trying to solve international conflicts, with 58 percent saying the U.S. shouldn't. That's virtually unchanged from March, reflecting a broader inclination toward nonintervention, backed up by other recent polls.
On Iraq, specifically, only 18 percent of Americans now tell CBS/NYT that the result of the war was worth the lives lost and other costs, with 75 percent saying it was not worth the loss. Most Americans—57 percent—say that the U.S. does not have a responsibility to make sure Iraq has a stable democracy. Fifty-seven percent of Americans also think that the current situation in Iraq is beyond U.S. control.
This sounds like great news for someone like the staunchly noninterventionist Rand Paul, and a lot like the death rattle of neoconservative foreign policy. But the numbers don't end there, and they confuse any sense of an isolationist trend. Americans are roughly split on whether the U.S. should have left some troops in Iraq after 2011—50 percent in favor of removing them all, 42 percent in favor of keeping some there. The same split exists when people are asked if Americans have responsibility to do something about the current violence in the country: 42 percent say U.S. has responsibility; 50 percent say it doesn't. A slim majority of Americans support the U.S. sending military advisers to Iraq (51 percent) and support working with Iran to resolve the situation (53 percent). Eighty percent of Americans think that what happens to Iraq is either very or somewhat important to U.S. interests.
And the worst news for the anti-drone, Rand Paul set: 56 percent of Americans favor using unmanned aircraft to carry out targeted attacks on militants in Iraq, while 38 percent oppose. At the same time, the vast majority of Americans oppose sending in ground troops (77 percent), and a bare majority oppose using manned aircraft for strikes (51 percent).
Scattered public opinion on foreign policy is not surprising, especially when it comes to the current violence in Iraq, which both evokes the bitter, recent past and summons plenty of fears for the future. The U.S. should do something in Iraq, most Americans seem to think, but there's no thing that most are really grabbing onto—except for maybe drones.
The murkiness puts Obama in an especially tough spot. The president seems almost doomed to frustrate a large number of Americans no matter what he does in Iraq. And the thing is, this crisis may only just be getting started.