Would American and Allied Public Opinion Support Military Action if the Iran Negotiations Fail?

July 2, 2015

Richard C. Eichenberg

Twitter: @IkeEichenberg

 Negotiations continue in Vienna on an agreement that would limit the Iranian nuclear program.  As the talks continue, it is useful to ask: how will public opinion react if the negotiations fail?

Although the wisdom and likely effectiveness of a military strike against Iran have been much debated, the position of the American government has long been that military action remains “on the table.”    Whether President Obama or any future President would choose the military option is obviously uncertain, but one factor that will likely condition the choice is the anticipated reaction of public opinion, both in the United States and in allied countries.

In the US, public support for military action against Iran has been lukewarm over the past ten years –an average of 45 percent from 2002-2013 –although it climbed to over 50 percent after President Obama initiated negotiations with Iran. This is lower than the 60 percent of the public that supported war with Iraq prior to 2003, and it is probably the frustrations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have left Americans less than enthusiastic about further military endeavors.

Another reason may be the simple fact that negotiations are underway and that some progress has already been made in the form of an interim agreement (which the public supports). Public opinion generally favors negotiation and nonmilitary solutions so long as these are realistic alternatives, but pollsters rarely test respondents by asking them what action they would favor should negotiation prove fruitless.

An important exception is a series of questions on Iran in the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends surveys. A first question in the battery asks: “As you may know, efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons are under way. Which of the following do you think is the best option?”  Respondents are then offered alternatives that include “military action,”  “economic incentives,”  “economic sanctions,” “support to opponents of the government,” and “use of computer technology to sabotage nuclear installations.”  A final response option is to “accept that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.”

This is a complicated question, but the public’s preferences are clear:  an average of only 7 percent of Europeans in 2014 chose “military action” over the alternatives (in the US it was 12 percent).  Among the nonmilitary options, economic incentives and economic sanctions were far and away the most popular options.  The breakdown of responses to this question have been very stable since 2010.

A second question was directed to those respondents who chose nonmilitary options in the first question: “And now imagine that all of these non-military options have been tried and the only option left to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is the use of military force. In that case, should the [European Union/United States/Turkey/Russia] take military action against Iran, or should [it/they] simply accept that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons?”

The responses to this second question are shown below: (click to enlarge image)

iranmil14An important feature of the responses to this question is the unusually high number of “don’t know” and refusals—an average of 22 percent and as high as 30 or 40 percent in some countries. Many respondents simply do not want to answer this question or express an opinion, perhaps because it presents a choice that genuinely conflicts many citizens, or perhaps because they prefer their own alternative (a wish that negotiations could somehow continue?).

Support for military action (combining “military action” in the first and second questions) is divided, although it is higher in some countries than recent levels of support for other military interventions, including intervention in the Syrian civil war (see 2013 and 2014 surveys here). Majorities favoring military action against Iran if negotiations fail exist in only five of the thirteen countries in the survey, although rejection of military action characterizes opinion in several important P5+1 countries, including Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Nonetheless, I think caution is warranted concerning the firmness of this support.  One reason is the high nonresponse rate noted above.  I suspect –although it is pure speculation—that many of these respondents would have preferred a response option along the lines of “keep trying…continue negotiation to find an agreement.”  If so, actual support levels are probably somewhat lower than those shown above. Further, even if the current negotiations do not succeed (or if violations of any eventual agreement are debated), further negotiation or employment of nonmilitary instruments of policy are likely to follow, and citizens have shown a clear preference for these options over the use of military force.  Finally,  the questions above refer to “military action” by the “European Union” –only in Turkey, Russia and the US are national military forces referenced.  As I showed in this paper, support for using force is always highest when the question refers to an abstract “military action” rather than to a specific action, such as sending troops.

The latter type of specific question was asked in Transatlantic Trends only in 2012 (the overall responses to the preliminary questions were very similar to those from 2014 shown above).  Respondents who chose “military action” to either preliminary question were asked further if they would support using their own country’s military forces  a.] to conduct air strikes or b.] to send ground troops.

The results are shown below for five of the six countries involved in the P5+1 talks with Iran (there is no survey for China). The chart shows clearly that support for conducting air strikes or sending ground troops is extremely unpopular in every country (although air strikes enjoy majority support in the US, confirming a similar result found by the Chicago Council on World Affairs in 2014).  Even lower levels of support characterize opinion in other countries (not shown).  The upshot of the results is that, even though respondents may support “military action” in the abstract, they shy away from supporting the use of their own country’s military forces. If the US does conduct airstrikes, it would likely act alone.




Summary and Conclusions

The surveys presented above point to three conclusions.  First, negotiations with Iran continue, consumers of polls should be cautious with the proclivity of pollsters to ask about an abstract “military action.”  As was the case in the run-up to the Iraq War, support for using force is inflated in such questions.  Second, public opinion in all countries prefers nonmilitary instruments of policy when dealing with Iran, including nonmilitary economic coercion.  So long as any type of negotiation with Iran continues –even in the absence of a final agreement—public opinion is likely to prefer nonmilitary instruments to the use of military force. Finally, even in the event of a complete breakdown in negotiations –or arguments that any agreement is flawed– support for specific uses of military force, such as air strikes or sending troops, is unpopular based on past patterns.  Whether this would change in the context of a renewed harsh tone in relations with Iran remains unknown, but the surveys from 2012 shown immediately above suggest that an attack on Iran would be a hard sell with public opinion in most countries.


Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was an academic adviser to the Transatlantic Trends surveys from 2004 through 2014, which means that I helped write many of the questions.  However, I cannot take credit for the Iran questions presented here.  They were the brainchild of another academic adviser, Professor Pierangelo Isernia of the University of Sienna.

Thanks to Pierangelo Isernia, Bruce Jentleson, and Dina Smeltz for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

Do Women Dislike Drone Strikes More Than Other Types of Airstrikes?  (yes, but only a little)

February 27, 2015

Surveys in many countries show very large gender differences in approval of strikes by pilot less drones. For example, in June 2013, the German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends survey asked the following question (click on any image to enlarge):



















Similar results occurred in a Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted in Spring 2013; the average gender difference in support for drone strikes was 20 percentage points:



The consistency of this finding has led to speculation as to why women should be particularly negative about drone strikes and even to some disagreement as to whether gender is really a significant cleavage in public opinion on war and peace issues.  Insightful analysis here, here, and here.

A frequently cited explanation for the large gender difference on drones is that women are more sensitive to civilian casualties, and there is some evidence for this in American public opinion (as in this survey by Pew from February 2013). However, this same Pew survey of the US revealed that women are also more likely to cite other reasons for opposing drones, including concerns about their legality, their effect on the US image, and concerns about retaliation by “extremists.”

Thus, it may simply be that opposition to drones among women is part of a broader pattern of greater skepticism toward the use of military force.

An additional question is why drone strikes should evoke stronger gender difference than other types of air and missile attacks.  After all, press treatment of drone technologies emphasizes their technological sophistication and “last minute” target acquisition capabilities.  Surely citizens have gained the impression that collateral civilian damage from such strikes, while possible and even evident, may be less than conventional air strikes from fighter or high-flying bombers?  We know, for example, that the public reacted negatively to several instances of mistaken air attacks against civilian targets during the Gulf War of 1991, the war in Kosovo in 1999, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (see the excellent Rand Corporation study of public reaction to these incidents by Eric V. Larson and Bogdan Savychof  here).

In this post, I provide additional insight on these questions. The analysis draws on my study of gender difference in opinions of the use of force in as many as 37 countries from 1990 through 2004. Complete details on my definitions and other methodological issues are provided in this paper. Briefly summarized, I evaluate “support for using military force” by including any survey question that seeks a positive or negative opinion on “the potential or actual use of military force [past, present, or future]… including questions that actively (if sometimes hypothetically) query approval or disapproval of an action involving military force as a means of policy and also including questions that ask if the action is justified, appropriate, or the right thing to do.”

The dataset includes survey measures of support for using military force in six historical episodes: the Gulf War of 1991; the ensuing confrontation with Iraq over weapons inspections (1991-2002); NATO’s intervention in Bosnia (1992-1995); NATO’s attack against Serbia in support of the Kosovar Albanians (1998-1999); the US war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (2001-2004); and the war against Iraq and subsequent occupation (during 2003-2004).  The full dataset includes 612 survey measures of support for using force, drawn from 37 countries (for a separate analysis of American public opinion since 1984, see this paper). In the analysis below, survey questions about air or missile strikes were asked in 31 countries; most (but not all) of these occur in NATO member countries.

In this post, “gender difference” is the percentage of women who support the use of force minus the same percentage for men.

The first chart below shows that women are less supportive of any type of military action, but air and missile strikes are indeed the type of action that evokes the largest gender difference: women are less supportive by an average of 18 percentage points (note: the average for naval actions is based on only four survey questions).  Note also that the gender difference of 18 percentage points is identical to the average for drone strikes in the GMF survey shown above, and it is only slightly smaller than the average in the Pew survey from Spring 2013 (20 percentage points).


Gender Difference in support for military actions












The chart shown below indicates that air or missile strikes elicited larger gender differences in four of the six episodes in my study.  Although I do not show the results for individual countries here, gender difference on air or missile strikes is the largest for any military action in all but five countries (the exceptions are Greece, Japan, Poland, Portugal, and Turkey).


Gender Difference in Support for Air or Missiles Strikes Compared to Other Military Actions Combined


 These results make clear that the large gender difference on the question of using drones is not unique: women dislike air and missile strikes (relative to men) by a margin that is at most only slightly lower than their dislike for drone strikes.  However, what these summary results do not tell us is why drone, air, and missile strikes should evoke such a large gender difference compared to other types of military actions.  As noted above, it may be that women are more sensitive to casualties, but the results here indicate that the issue is not casualties in the absolute: sending or increasing troops are actions that also risk casualties, but the gender difference for these actions is smaller.  It may be that air strikes and drone strikes risk higher civilian casualties (as the Pew surveys seem to find), which might imply that women are more likely than men to feel empathy or solidarity with civilians in target countries. Finally, it may be that the sudden, unexpected nature of air strikes evokes the greater sense of vulnerability to violence that women are known to experience relative to men (see this paper for an interesting discussion of this possibility). Which of these explanations is closest to the mark is something we cannot say on the basis of aggregate percentages such as those presented here, so a fuller understanding of gender difference must await additional research that explores these hypotheses in greater detail at the individual level.


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