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Would Public Back Military Action in "Trouble Spots"?

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

Americans view Syria, North Korea, and Iran unfavorably

The U.S. government is monitoring potential threats posed by three countries in particular: Iran, Syria, and North Korea. A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll* shows most Americans say they would oppose U.S. military action against those countries. With regard to one of the three -- Iran -- public sentiment has shifted significantly since shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Three Unpopular Countries

Recent events have created even more tension between the United States and two of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" countries. In February, North Korea announced it had nuclear weapons and boycotted talks about ending nuclear proliferation, causing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to declare the country an "outpost of tyranny." Along those same lines, Iran has also been suspected of developing nuclear weapons. Syria is under scrutiny from the United States and the international community for its troop presence in Lebanon, and has drawn harsh criticism from the Bush administration.

Perhaps it is not surprising that these three countries rank among the least favorably rated by the American public. Just a quarter of Americans (25%) have a favorable opinion of Syria, and still fewer have favorable opinions of North Korea (13%) and Iran (12%).

North Korea and Iran also ranked among the top countries considered by Americans to be the nation's greatest enemy, as measured in the Feb. 7-10 Gallup World Affairs poll. North Korea and Iraq were most often mentioned, each by 22% of Americans, while Iran is mentioned by 14% of Americans. Two percent of Americans named Syria at that time.

Majority Opposes Military Action

Despite these decidedly negative views of the counties, Americans stop short of backing potential military action against any of the three countries. In the case of Iran, just 28% of Americans say they would favor U.S. military action there, while 66% say they would oppose it. In January 2002, just after Bush's "axis of evil" speech (and just a few months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks), 7 in 10 Americans (71%) said they would favor taking military action in Iran, and just 23% opposed the idea. At that time, Americans also showed high levels of support in favor of U.S. military action in other countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. 

Despite currently tense relations, Americans don't favor military action in the other two countries tested, either. More than 6 in 10 Americans say they would oppose U.S. military action in both Syria (65%) and North Korea (62%).

Republicans Most Willing to Back Military Action

For all three countries, opinion of military action varies along partisan lines. Republicans are significantly more likely than independents and Democrats to say they would favor military action:

  • Forty-six percent of Republicans would favor military action in North Korea, compared with 26% of independents and 23% of Democrats.
  • Forty-three percent of Republicans would favor military action in Iran, compared with 23% of independents and 17% of Democrats.
  • Thirty-nine percent of Republicans would favor military action in Syria, compared with 23% of independents and 13% of Democrats.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,008 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 25-27, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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