Americans Will Back Military Action Overseas If They Believe the United States Has

For Release

May 29, 2005

Americans support the global war on terror because they believe the United States has “important stakes” in the conflict, and will support other military actions overseas as well if they believe important stakes are involved, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

RAND researchers conclude that “national leaders should expect a relatively permissive public opinion environment for taking military action” in operations that are viewed as directly related to the war on terror, even when U.S. casualties are expected.

The study examines key predictors of national support for U.S. military operations from Somalia to Iraq. It was compiled by the RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Army.

“The main implication for the Army,” concludes the report, “is that Americans have proved themselves far more willing to use ground troops—to put boots on the ground—and to accept casualties in operations conducted under the global war on terror than in any of the military operations” during the 1990s.

Americans’ opinions went on a war footing following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, often matching levels of support for military action seen during World War II, according to the study that synthesizes findings from about 100 public opinion surveys.

“The perceived importance of the stakes was the key belief predicting support for the operation,” said RAND analyst Eric Larson, the report’s lead author.

Other major factors influencing a person’s likelihood of backing a military operation include: identifying with the same political party as the president of the United States, the occurrence of battle casualties, and beliefs about the prospects for an operation’s success, according to the study.

Larson said that U.S. support for the Iraq mission became “far more stalwart” after 16 soldiers were killed when an Army helicopter was shot down in November 2003 by insurgents near Fallujah. This is in contrast to public sentiment after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 that killed 18 U.S. troops and wounded many more.

Polls showed a “stiffening” of public support for military action after the Iraq incident, while polling data showed that Americans preferred pulling out of Somalia by 2-to-1 margins even before the Mogadishu firefight. That sentiment strengthened after the battle, according to the study.

The RAND analysis also shows that Americans weren’t big fans of the peace missions conducted during the 1990s, and they wanted these missions completed with as little cost as possible.

“None of the peace operations of the 1990s (Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo) were judged particularly important by most members of the public, and avoidance of casualties turned out to be a more important consideration than avoidance of defeat…,” according to the RAND study.

Only three or four of 10 Americans thought the stakes for the United States were important in Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti, the RAND report says. But these figures shot up for the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, with most Americans shifting to a belief that the new war involved “nearly existential stakes.”

Asked after 9/11 whether the attack on Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center were “more historically significant,” Americans chose the 9/11 attacks by more than three to one, the report notes. The report adds that support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan “approached the eight in ten that typically supported World War II.”

The study also notes that the experts who said U.N. opposition would wreck Americans’ support for the Iraq war were wrong. “The fact that seven in ten would support the war should not have been terribly surprising in light of the public opinion record since the first Gulf War,” write Larson and co-author Bogdan Savych.

In more than 100 polls conducted by various groups from 1991 to the early fall of 2002 that were reviewed, RAND researchers found there was not a single instance in which a majority failed to support the option of using ground troops to overthrow Saddam Hussein. However, the report notes evidence of declining support for the operation in Iraq since the end of major combat operations was declared in May 2003.

Researchers say that if Americans begin to view the stakes in Iraq as no more consequential than those in the peace operations of the 1990s, support for the operation would be in grave doubt.

Printed copies of “American Public Support for U.S. Military Operations from Mogadishu to Baghdad” (ISBN: 0-8330-3672-6) can be ordered from RAND’s Distribution Services ( or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

The RAND Arroyo Research Center provides objective analytic research on major policy concerns to leadership of the U.S. Army, with an emphasis on mid- to long-term policy issues intended to improve effectiveness and efficiency. The Arroyo Research Center also provides the Army with short-term assistance on urgent problems and acts as a catalyst for needed change.

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