The Iraq War quickly cost President George W. Bush public support.

Do Americans Love War?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Americans are war-happy. That's the conclusion Kevin Drum draws from polls that suggest the bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq are popular, and that a large minority would support a ground attack.

It's like we've learned nothing from the past decade. Our politicians are in love with war. The public is in love with war. And the press is really in love with war. It just never ends.

Greg Sargent threw some cold water on Drum’s numbers (see Greg’s close look at the polls here). So who is correct?

In a sense, they both are. On the one hand, people seem quite willing to react to the latest apparent threat by telling pollsters they support military action. On the other hand, there are plenty of indicators that war isn’t really that popular; even military action in Afghanistan has polled badly for some time, despite the connections (dim though they may be at this point) between that conflict and the Sept. 11 attacks. Politicians should remember, too, that the Iraq War probably started costing George W. Bush support by 2004 and certainly hurt Republicans in 2006 and 2008. So those initial enthusiastic responses don’t necessarily predict actual public willingness to put up with actual war.

There’s another way to look at this: It may be that most Americans just don’t care much when they aren't being pressed by pollsters. There are no huge rallies against military action nor is there any reported surge in enlistment. It’s not even clear how many voters know that U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan -- or how many voters knew before the latest airstrikes that U.S. troops had left Iraq. (How about some polling on basic facts about foreign policy?).

All this may simply reflect what we've known for a long time: Without a draft or full mobilization, wars only touch a relatively small segment of the U.S. population. Drone wars or airstrikes are even less likely to “feel” like war to most Americans. So these conflicts may become just another issue that people only think about when pollsters call, but don’t care enough about to take political action.

Of course, voter indifference has important policy consequences. And it's appropriate to wonder about the ethics of this lack of interest. But that’s not the same as saying the U.S. is a nation of warmongers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net