This post is another in a series of what to read and not read from recent polls. There is clearly a growing awareness in the United States of that international band of psychotic, barbaric criminals who go by the rotating names of ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), ISIL (The Islamic State in the Levant), or simply IS (The Islamic State). There is no question that they are dangerous, growing, increasingly monstrous - and that they must be stopped. New polling by CNN/Opinion Research shows that a majority of Americans (57%) disapprove of President Barack Obama's handling of the threat that ISIS poses and that 58 percent think American military action against the group is going badly. In the fall, both those numbers were at 49 percent. More than three in four (78%) back a new authorization for use of military force against ISIS.
Fifty-seven percent also disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of foreign affairs overall, and 54% disapprove of how he is handling terrorism.
No doubt that the CNN Poll's declining numbers for the President come as violent events unfolded in Denmark and Libya.
Almost half of Democrats (46%) told the pollsters the fight against ISIS isn't going well. Nonetheless, more than half (51%) of all respondents felt overall Obama is doing a good job as commander-in-chief.
What has gotten the most play from the new poll, however, is the result that now more people support sending American ground troops to fight ISIS. In November, only 43 percent were in favor and 55 percent opposed. The number of those supporting is now at a record-high 47 percent with only half opposing.
I do not for a moment doubt the accuracy of these figures. At the same time I also know that we pollsters must dig deeper and ask questions that illuminate the kind of serious debate required before any military action - especially the kind that puts American troops or citizens in harm's way. I recall that just two weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Zogby polling found that overall 91% of Americans supported going to war against terrorism. But when I asked if they would support such a war if it lasted six months to a year, the level of support dropped to 77%. Support fell to 67% if the war on terrorism lasted one to two years and to 57% if it went on over two years. In short, let's be careful about talk of war until we have answered some important questions.
Is putting US troops on the ground and losing American lives worth the risk of defeating ISIS? Will our efforts actually make a difference? Does US involvement make things better or worse? Will US troops be a large part of an anemic "coalition of the willing", as in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or will we be part of a grand global coalition to defeat evil as in World War II and the First Gulf War?
Can we afford to make a huge commitment? Are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Europe, and even Iran ready to make sacrifices? Will the US effectively spend money to win hearts and minds? Who rebuilds the infrastructure - transportation, schools, health care, water, and electricity - during and after the fighting?
Going to war, especially sending American troops, is not simply a matter of feeling good about ourselves for kicking some butt for a few weeks. It is serious, costly, and it destroys lives and families. It causes mental illness, homelessness, and exacerbates violent behavior at home. And the debate over strategy involves so much more than mobilizing American troops. This has to be a comprehensive global campaign, especially focusing on the roles that Middle Eastern players play in the effort.
It is so much more than one question about ground troops in a single poll.