Americans would be very reluctant to commit U.S. military forces to international conflicts even to prevent such a close ally as Israel from being overrun, a new public opinion poll indicated Saturday.
The poll, part of a massive survey of opinion on foreign policy called Americans Talk Security, showed a steady public aversion to the use of American troops except where direct U.S. interests are at risk.
When respondents were presented with hypothetical examples of armed aggression against nations generally friendly to the United States, fewer than one in five persons said they would support American military action. The reluctance to commit American troops was remarkably consistent regardless of the nation under attack.
The results strongly suggest that the post-Vietnam aversion to the use of American military power is continuing despite the Reagan Administration’s effort to eradicate what it calls the “Vietnam Syndrome.” The figures also provide a caution light to the next President, whether he is Republican George Bush or Democrat Michael S. Dukakis. Although the use of American military force has played only a small part in campaign rhetoric, both Bush and Dukakis have said they would be prepared to use U.S. troops in support of foreign policy objectives if more peaceful methods fail.
The poll was conducted last month by the firm Market Opinion Research. The results are scheduled to be released after next month’s election but the figures were obtained in advance by The Times.
Pollsters got almost identical responses when they asked about a supposed Arab invasion of Israel and a hypothetical Iranian invasion of Saudi Arabia. Although both Israel and Saudi Arabia enjoy warm diplomatic relations with the U.S. government, most American politicians assume that Israel is far more popular with the public than Saudi Arabia. Congress has blocked several proposed arms sales to the Saudis but has never vetoed a sale to Israel.
Only 18% of the sample endorsed the use of U.S. troops in defense of either the Israelis or the Saudis, while 32% said the United States should stay out of the Israeli conflict and 34% said Washington should take no action to help the Saudis.
In both instances, 17% said the United States should send military supplies, but no troops, to aid either the Israelis or the Saudis. A total of 27% supported diplomatic pressure, but nothing more, in support of Israel and 25% advocated diplomatic pressure on behalf of the Saudis.
A similar 18% minority advocated the use of U.S. troops to blunt a Nicaraguan invasion of Honduras to destroy Contra bases. The support was even less for the commitment of American forces in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan (8%), an Indian invasion of Pakistan (3%) and a Soviet invasion of Poland (9%).
The only hypothetical example in which more respondents favored sending troops than staying out of the dispute entirely involved a Soviet and East German invasion of West Berlin. In that instance, 38% supported the use of U.S. troops, 13% supported sending military supplies but no troops, 25% advocated diplomatic pressure and only 19% said the United States should stay out. Unlike the other scenarios, the United States already has a garrison of troops in West Berlin, which would surely come under fire in such an invasion, making it virtually impossible for the United States to remain aloof.
Paradoxically, a majority of the public supports most of the instances in which U.S. military power was actually used since World War II. The only exception was the Vietnam War.