Behind the Numbers

Persian Mathematics

Despite the Republican claims that Obama's Iran policy is weak-kneed, the American public generally supports his wait-and-see approach. That is, of course, unless it doesn't work.

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

President Barack Obama's policy of sanctions and restraint with Iran is widely popular, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, but few give him good ratings when it comes to the nation's intent to develop nuclear weapons.

The issue has election-year implications on both foreign and domestic policy front, with more than eight in 10 Americans believing that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Back at home, rising gas prices are proving a drag on Obama's approval rating on the economy, and providing a potent political weapon for the field of Republican challengers.

Obama has urged restraint with Iran and for allowing sanctions to put pressure on Tehran. "We have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically," Obama argued last week after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Americans by a more than 2 to 1 margin favor a "wait and see" approach on Iran over immediate military action, according to the new poll. Fully 64 percent say it's more important to see if economic sanctions work, even if it allows more time for Iran's nuclear program to progress; only 26 percent support pre-emptive action to halt Iran's progress. Majorities or pluralities across party lines prefer sanctions over immediate action, though Republicans are less supportive than Democrats or independents.

Sanctions may be a core tenet of his administration's approach, but Obama is not reaping much of a reward being cautious. More than half of Americans, 52 percent, disapprove of Obama's handling of the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, while 36 percent approve. The negative assessment could be tied to the political realities of the moment: Most Americans think Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon, and the Obama administration and U.S. allies have yet to ensure that, well, it won't -- and that it will live by its promise to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.

Roughly three quarters of Americans support increasing international sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; even more favor direct diplomatic talks to try and resolve the situation. Support for diplomatic measures is high across the political spectrum, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

Only a much smaller 41 percent support bombing Iran's nuclear development sites, while 53 percent of the public opposes such a move. Partisan divides are sharper on this issue: Majorities of Democrats and independents oppose bombing Iran, while most Republicans favor this option. A similar 42 percent support Israel bombing Iran's nuclear development sites, while 51 percent are opposed.

Americans' hesitance to take direct military action -- or for Israel to do the same -- may be driven by a fear of igniting a larger conflict in the region. More than three quarters of Americans say a bombing attack by Israel would have a major risk of starting a larger war in the Middle East, and this group opposes bombing by nearly 2 to 1. Among those who are doubtful an Iran confrontation would spread throughout the region, a large majority support bombing Iran.

Different surveys have implied mixed conclusions about what the public wants on Iran, as we explored in February. Indeed, a new CBS News/New York Times poll finds a 51 percent majority favor military action against Iran, which seems to contradict the Post-ABC poll as well as a CBS/NYT poll last month -- where only 15 percent thought Iran requires "military action now."

The big differences are rooted in survey question wording. When Americans are offered a single solution to combat something they deeply oppose -- Iran acquiring nuclear weapons -- substantial numbers say they're willing to use military force. But when given the choice of military intervention as well as economic sanctions, most opt for the diplomatic route.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Behind the Numbers

A Threat We Can Live With

Most Americans really don’t like North Korea, but few say it’s worth going to war to make them get rid of their nuclear weapons.

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Some Americans may rest easier on news that North Korea and U.S. negotiators struck a deal to provide food aid in exchange for halting its uranium enrichment program, a key facet of its nuclear weapons operation. But many Americans may be skeptical: North Korea is deeply unpopular, widely seen as a threat to national security and not very trustworthy.

More than eight in ten Americans expressed unfavorable views of North Korea in a February Gallup poll, including 54 percent who held strongly unfavorable views. A similar 49 percent called the nation an outright "enemy" in a 2011 CNN/ORC poll -- tying Iran. That's about double or more the number who called any other country in the survey an enemy (including Syria, Pakistan, and China).

Americans' worries over North Korea even outpace concern among foreign policy experts. Nearly seven in 10 Americans said that the Kim Jong Il regime posed a "major threat" to national security in a 2009 Pew Research Center poll, much higher than the proportion of Council of Foreign Relations members who said this in a parallel survey. 

And more than seven in 10 Americans in a 2009 CNN poll believed North Korea was capable of launching a missile that could hit the United States. If they attempted such a feat, the poll found the public almost unanimously supporting military retaliation. Pyongyang still had a ways to go before being able to launch a nuclear warhead across the Pacific, and has said that it will stop long-range missile launches under the new agreement.

Aside from hypothetical situations, Americans have signaled little appetite for a military invasion. Even after Pyongyang announced it had built nuclear weapons for self defense, 78 percent of Americans in a 2005 Washington Post-ABC News poll opposed a military invasion. A similar percentage opposed bombing military targets to force the nation to part with their weapons. The public split on whether to offer financial incentives, such as aid money or trade, to encourage North Korea to halt its nuclear program.

This attitude seems to persist today. Late last year, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said that the North Korean threat could be contained without using force, according to a CBS News poll. Only 16 percent said that the threat requires immediate military action.

But Americans may be dubious of the success of the latest agreement with Pyongyang. Two-thirds of voters said the United States shouldn't trust any agreements with North Korea in a 2006 Fox News poll. That number may be a bit higher than the reality, as the survey reminded respondents about North Korea's recent missile tests.

Even so, the public has reason to be doubtful. The two nations struck an agreement when Kim Jong Il took control of the country in 1994, promising to stop the nuclear program in exchange for $5 billion in nuclear fuel and reactors (for conventional uses) last time North Korea had a change in leadership. Suffice to say, they didn't hold up their end of the bargain.

Is there any confidence in diplomacy? Many are optimistic. Six in 10 people said that diplomatic and economic efforts alone could successfully resolve the situation in a 2006 CNN poll, and even more thought diplomacy and negotiation had at least "some chance" of solving the North Korea problem in a 2003 Washington Post-ABC survey. If Americans fail to see a fast-growing danger, the public may continue to be patient with diplomacy.

Americans seem be taking the long-view approach to North Korea's nuclear threat: Step up diplomatic efforts to halt the nuclear program, but don't declare war unless attacked first.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images