Americans Willing To Help Libya To A Point

President Obama has come under some criticism from members of Congress for not being more explicit about his goals or the exit strategy when it comes to the current bombing campaign in Libya. And, so far, public opinion of U.S. involvement has been tepid.

Public opinion surveys suggest that the American people support the U.S. military's role in creating a no-fly zone over Libya, but not by an overwhelming margin. About half of Americans approve, while about a third disapprove, according to various polls.

But the approval numbers begin to lift upward fast when pollsters provide additional information about the mission — like the lack of ground troops, or the limited time frame Obama has stressed.

Public Opinion

Americans have typically offered strong support at the outset of military actions abroad during the past few decades. The tepid response to the current bombing campaign in Libya is in keeping with prior humanitarian ventures in Kosovo and Haiti. This chart shows the percentages of Americans polled by Gallup who approved and disapproved of relatively recent military engagements.

    Approval Disapproval
Libya 2011 47 37
Iraq 2003 76 20
Afghanistan 2001 90 5
Kosovo 1999 51 45
Afghanistan/
Sudan
1998 66 19
Haiti 1994 54 45
Somalia 1993 65 23
Iraq 1993 83 9
Libya 1986 71 21
Grenada 1983 53 34

A CBS News poll released Tuesday, for instance, found that 68 percent of Americans approve of the airstrikes when informed that their purpose is to protect civilians.

"When the goals are specified, you do get rather large support," says Stephen Kull, who directs the University of Maryland's program on international policy attitudes.

Military operations launched primarily for humanitarian purposes, such as the 1990s missions in Bosnia and Somalia, don't seem to enjoy the kind of near-universal support that Americans give at the outbreak of wars in which they feel the country has come under direct threat.

Public support is being held down by the fact that the public does not perceive vital national interests as being at stake, as was the case at the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, says Douglas Foyle, a government professor at Wesleyan University who has studied public opinion about wars.

Some Are Pushing For More

Some of Obama's critics have seized the point that the goals of this mission have either not been laid out clearly enough or are not broad enough to begin with.

For instance, Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, who holds Obama's old seat in the Senate, argues that the objective should be to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The administration has said that Gadhafi is not a target.

"I think that we are now in a shooting war with Moammar Gadhafi, so it should be to end his regime and bring about a new government," Kirk told reporters in Chicago on Monday.

Other members of Congress have argued that the U.N.-sanctioned action came too late, or that it's another military venture that the nation can ill afford.

But despite triggering arguments from both ends of the political spectrum about process and goals, Obama's campaign in Libya has not come under the harshest kind of congressional criticism. That is, no one has called it a mistake or a failure.

"It is true that when there is a conflict among the political leadership, that does diminish support for use of military force," says Kull of the University of Maryland. "However, the criticism that we're getting from both sides of the aisle is not that we shouldn't have done it, but is the president doing it right, or does he have an endgame. That kind of debate won't cut support."

What The Public Likes

Polls suggest that there's little difference in attitude among Democrats, Republicans and independents. Gallup's initial polling shows slightly greater support among Republicans, with 57 percent approving, than among Democrats, at 51 percent.

"This is much less partisan than other issues, such as health care," says Frank Newport, Gallup's editor-in-chief. "Most other things that we study, not shockingly, if Obama is for it, Republicans are against it."

Picketers protest the American involvement in Libya on Wednesday in San Francisco.

Picketers protest the American involvement in Libya on Wednesday in San Francisco. Ben Margot/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Margot/AP

Americans are not wild about using the military for humanitarian ventures, says John Mueller, an Ohio State political scientist. But they're willing to support such ventures, as long as the costs — primarily, meaning casualties — are kept low.

"A willingness to help, maybe, but not at a cost of lives," Mueller says.

But the public applauds the fact that this mission in Libya is multilateral in nature and that ground troops are not involved, Foyle says.

"If it turns out to be what it is right now, which is just the U.S. using some cruise missiles, with no casualties — basically a low-cost, low-commitment intervention," he says, "I would expect to see the numbers hold."

Not Heavily Invested?

This suggests that the same things that have earned Obama criticism from some members of Congress — that his goals are too limited — are sitting pretty well with a public made wary by the waging of war in other countries.

Support for the campaign in Libya could "drop dramatically and fast" if there are significant numbers of U.S. casualties, Foyle says. Failing that, however, public opinion is likely to remain steady, he says.

Americans don't seem heavily invested in the question of whether Gadhafi should be ousted, suggests Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Although unloved, he's not "an active nemesis" for the U.S., as he was during the 1980s, perhaps particularly after the 1988 bombing of an airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, O'Hanlon says.

Limited Objectives

Instead, as long as Gadhafi is kept from massacring his own people — and the U.S. military does not suffer substantial numbers of casualties — the public is likely to remain in Obama's corner.

Even a long situation of stasis, with Gadhafi controlling much of the country and rebel factions controlling a rump area, would not be likely to dampen U.S. opinion much, suggests Kull.

After all, that was the situation that prevailed for years after the first Iraq war, with the U.S. protecting populations through no-fly zones.

"I don't think the people are going to punish the president if he is content with Gadhafi staying in power over at least part of the country," O'Hanlon says. "Americans are war-weary and willing to accept something less than the best outcome."

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