"Lies, damn lies and statistics" is a jab sometimes aimed at political polls, and in the complicated business of foreign policy polling there's plenty for people to argue over.
Seventy-five percent of Americans see Israel as a friend or an ally. Thirty-seven percent think the United States was right to get involved in Libya last year. Fifty-nine percent believe China poses a major economic threat to the nation.
All these numbers come from polls in the past year, but can they be trusted? And since most Americans aren't foreign policy wonks, are these results even meaningful? And what about when polls show contradictory findings -- like on what to do about Iran's nuclear threat?
Let's start with the good news. By and large, polls boast a strong record of accuracy and there's evidence that poll respondents are doing their part as well. "The public has meaningful opinions on foreign policy issues like domestic issues," says Robert Y. Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University, at least where respondents possess a "minimum amount of information on which to base their opinions." Even on issues where there is very little public debate (like, say, on U.S. democracy promotion in Central Asia), poll results in the aggregate can represent a meaningful reaction to a policy.
This is often the case with foreign policy issues, about which few have ruminated laboriously and even fewer know all the facts. The wording of a given question plays a big role in framing the way poll respondents think about the issue and, thus, their answers. Even balanced questions sometimes get varying results, making it difficult to sort out what the public actually wants.
Take the latest controversy over Iran's nuclear buildup. Americans said by nearly 2 to 1 in a Pew survey this month that it is more important to "prevent Iran from developing weapons, even if it means taking military action" than to "avoid military conflict, even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons." One could read this result as an implicit call to arms.
But a contemporaneous CNN/ORC poll found just 17 percent supporting "military action right now." Some 60 percent of those polled favored "economic and diplomatic efforts" and an additional 22 percent supported "no action at all. This poll, then, gives the sense that an invasion is remarkably unpopular.