By Dina Smeltz, senior fellow, public opinion and foreign policy, Craig Kafura, senior program officer, studies, and Liz Deadrick, research assistant
As President Obama prepares to address the nation tomorrow night regarding the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Chicago Council Survey results from May 2014 show that the Americans remain concerned about the threat of international terrorism, though less intensely now than in the past. Still, combating terrorism remains a top foreign policy goal for the U.S. public, and one of the few situations where majorities of Americans say they are willing to support the use of US troops. That support is reflected in recent polls from CNN/ORC International and ABC News/Washington Post, which find majorities of Americans in favor of conducting airstrikes against ISIS.
Terrorism a top threat, though fears are declining
Americans have long sensed a threat from international terrorism, even before the September 11, 2001 attacks. Chicago Council Surveys conducted in 1994 and 1998 found solid majorities expressing concern about terrorism, following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. By 2002, the first Chicago Council Survey to follow the 2001 attacks, nine in ten Americans said that international terrorism was a critical threat (91%). In tandem, nine in ten also considered combating international terrorism a very important goal (91%).
Over the past decade, Council surveys have shown a declining sense of threat across a number of issues, particularly since the public’s hyper-vigilant attitudes in 2002. In the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, six in ten rate international terrorism a critical threat (63%), a sharp decline from 91 percent in 2002. In fact, as the figure above shows, this is the lowest level of concern reported since this question was first asked in 1994. There have been concurrent declines over time in fears about nuclear proliferation (from 85% deeming it a critical threat in 2002 to 60% now) and Iran’s nuclear program (68% a saying it is a critical threat when first asked in 2010 to 58% now).
Despite these subsiding fears, international terrorism remains a top concern for Americans today. Only one in four Americans (24%) believe that the United States is safer today than it was before the terrorist attacks in 2001. A plurality says the country is as safe as it was before 2001(48%), and another quarter says the country is less safe (27%). In addition, among all twenty potential threats asked about in The 2014 Chicago Council Survey, international terrorism is currently ranked second. Only cyber-attacks on US computer networks are ranked higher, with 69 percent of Americans viewing these as a critical threat.
Similarly, combating international terrorism remains one of the public’s top five foreign policy goals, as it has been since the question was first asked in 1998. This year—as with every year except for 2002—it ranks as less important than protecting the jobs of American workers and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
Majority of Americans support most measures for combating terrorism, including use of US troops
Majorities of Americans have consistently supported a variety of possible actions to combat terrorism, including the use of force. Seven in ten Americans support US airstrikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities (71%) and assassinations of individual terrorist leaders (70%). Six in ten support attacks by US ground troops against terrorist training camps (56%) as well as drone strikes to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists (62%). While these levels have also declined from post-9/11 peaks, current readings are in line with results from 2012 and from 1998. These results highlight the public’s preference for lower-risk approaches of airstrikes, assassinations, and drone strikes. Over time, support for airstrikes and ground troops has returned to levels before the 2001 attacks, while support for targeted assassinations has grown.
These preferences are reflected in Americans’ current views on how to deal with ISIS. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll released September 9 found support for airstrikes in Iraq (71%) and Syria (65%). Similarly, a new CNN/ORC International poll released on September 8, 2014 shows a majority favoring airstrikes (76%) against ISIS. Yet the public continues to oppose sending US troops, with 61 percent of the public opposed to placing US soldiers on the ground to combat ISIS.
The public also favors non-military approaches to combat terrorism. Nearly four out of five Americans (78%) favor working through the UN to strengthen international laws against terrorism and to make sure UN members enforce them, making this multilateral approach the most favored of all measures. However, support for this measure has decreased steadily since 2002 when it was favored by 88 percent of Americans.
Younger Americans place lower priority on combating terrorism
Since 2002, when large majorities of all age groups deemed terrorism a critical threat, generational gaps have broadened on this and other issues. Now, a bare majority (51%) of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 view international terrorism as a critical threat, down from 92 percent in 2002. In contrast, larger majorities of older Americans label it as a critical threat, ranging from 57 percent among those ages 30-44 to76 percent of those over age 60. This declining perception of threat is not limited to terrorism, however, as Americans are less likely to describe most threats asked about in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey as critical. Nor is this age gap an entirely new phenomenon: younger Americans have consistently been less threatened by international issues. But the size of the gap has grown.
Younger Americans are also less supportive than older Americans of the use of drones. A majority of 18-29 year olds (51%) oppose the use of drone strikes to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists (44% support) compared to majority support among other age groups. In the cases of NSA data collection and the use of air strikes against terrorist camps and facilities, younger Americans favor these approaches, but to a lesser degree than older Americans, as has consistently been the case since the question was first asked in 1998. For example, nearly eight in ten (78%) of Americans over the age of 60 support the NSA collecting telephone and internet data to identify links to potential terrorists—but only six in ten Americans under the age of 44 say the same.
There is also a steadily widening age gap occurring between the youngest and oldest age groups on the use of air strikes. Sixty percent of 18-29 year olds favor US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities compared to 80 percent of Americans over the age of 60 say the same. Finally, when it comes to putting ‘boots on the ground’, younger Americans are about as supportive as older Americans: slightly more than half of 18-29 year olds (51%) and Americans over the age of 60 (57%) support using ground troops to attack terrorist training camps and other facilities.
Partisan divisions on terror threat
Republicans have consistently been the most likely to say that combating terrorism is a very important goal since the question was first asked in 1998. However, the proportion of Democrats emphasizing the importance of fighting terrorism has been on the rise since 2008—the year President Obama was elected. At the same time, the importance of terrorism to Republicans has steadily declined from its post-9/11 peak of 94 percent. Now, Democrats (65%) are as likely as Republicans (62%) to say that combating terrorism is a very important goal. Independents are least likely to say so (56%).
Though support for combating terrorism crosses partisan lines, Republicans tend to be more likely than Democrats to favor using force to combat it. Eight of ten (80%) Republicans favor the assassination of individual terrorist leaders while 68 percent of Democrats support this action. The same holds for U.S. air strikes against terrorism training camps and other facilities (Republicans favor at 82 percent and Democrats at 67 percent) and for attacks by U.S. ground troops (66 percent of Republicans favor and 57 percent of Democrats). Democrats, however, show higher favor for helping poor countries develop their economies (75%) and working through the UN (84%) than Republicans (60% and 76%, respectively).
About the 2014 Chicago Council Survey
The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey and previous Chicago Council Surveys of the American public on foreign policy. The 2014 Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide research panel between May 6 to May 29, 2014 among a national sample of 2,108 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error for the overall sample is ± 2.1 percentage points.
A full report on the results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey will be released on September 15.
The 2014 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, and the United States-Japan Foundation.