New poll finds major American support for sending U.S. ground troops to fight Islamic State

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
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Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, alternatively known as Abu Ala al-Afri, was a senior Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) official who reintegrated himself into ISIL following his release from prison in early 2012 and traveled to Syria to work in a Syria-based ISIL network. Al-Qaduli joined al-Qaida in 2004 under the command of now deceased al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and served as al-Zarqawiâs deputy and the AQI amir (leader) of Mosul, Ninawa Province, Iraq. (Rewards for Justice/US State Department)

Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli

Congressional hawks who favor sending U.S. ground troops to fight the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria got a boost on Wednesday from a new poll that found Americans favor doing so by a lopsided 2-to-1 edge.

The Quinnipiac University assessment, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points, confirmed a public opinion trend since late last year showing that Americans are increasingly turning in favor of ground combat after months of Islamic State videos showing the group’s atrocities in agonizing detail, including the beheadings of U.S. nationals.

The poll comes as a trio of top officials  Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey  are scheduled to face questions about President Barack Obama’s war plans from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a March 11 hearing.

The Quinnipiac poll found that 62 percent of Americans support sending U.S. troops to fight IS, as the militant group is also known, in Iraq and Syria. Thirty percent oppose such an escalation.

Fifty-three percent of respondents said they worried that the U.S. military “will not go far enough in stopping” IS, while 39 percent expressed concern that the military will go “too far,” Quinnipiac reported.

Obama has asked Congress to greenlight a sweeping Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that expires in three years and includes deliberately vague language restricting “the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, have loudly complained that the AUMF imposes wrong-headed limitations on the military campaign. Democrats, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) have worried that the vague language does little, if anything, to limit the operations, because there is no precise meaning to “enduring ground combat operations.”

The measure would not confine the war on IS to Iraq and Syria, a geographic limit that some Democrats had sought. And the expiration date would make any renewal fight the next president’s problem, something that makes many Republicans unhappy.

Democrats privately accused the White House last year of stalling debate on the AUMF in order to kick the process to a Republican-controlled Congress more likely to oppose limits on the military campaign. Administration officials have privately expressed concerns about losing too many Democrats in any final AUMF vote, which would show the world that the United States is divided about tackling IS.

The vague language of the White House-drafted AUMF reflected those concerns, as well as strong opposition from top administration foreign policy and national security staff to setting any meaningful limits on the operation.

It’s not clear that Congress will overcome those divisions and approve an AUMF. Next week’s hearing is expected to showcase the broad divisions among lawmakers and hint at what  if anything  the White House is prepared to do to shore up support.

The White House has said it is already acting legally, citing the 2001 AUMF that was approved in response to the Sept. 11 attacks as well as the president’s war-making powers under Article 2 of the Constitution.

A White House official recently told Yahoo News that the administration would not object if Congress were to amend the proposed AUMF to stipulate that it not the 2001 AUMF  is the only authority for the military campaign. But that would not restrict Obama’s actions, since the new AUMF expires under his successor.

The Quinnipiac poll found that that Americans favor congressional approval of the AUMF by a 64-to-23 percent edge.

Obama, who says he has no plans to send U.S. ground troops into combat against IS, has said he does not envision a massive incursion, as in previous wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. And top aides have carefully kept things similarly vague.

“I believe that we give the president the options necessary in order to deal with the emergency,” retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the president’s point man on the conflict, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 25. “And ‘enduring’ might only be two weeks. But ‘enduring’ might be two years.”

On Feb. 25, Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “We're not talking about American ground troops, and there is no authorization in here putting American combat ground troops into an enduring offensive combat situation.”

While it’s not clear how much or whether the poll will shift the debate in Congress, the general public opinion trend has appeared to show increasing support for sending U.S. ground troops into combat. Americans still seem broadly divided about the issue, however.

A February poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of respondents worried the United States would not go far enough in trying to defeat IS, while 46 percent were more worried about the U.S. going too far. Forty-seven percent backed sending ground troops into combat, and 49 percent opposed taking that step. An October Pew poll found Americans split 39-to-55 percent on the same issue. The latest Pew poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

A CBS News poll, also conducted in February, found 57 percent of respondents favored sending U.S. ground troops into combat, against 37 percent who were opposed. That assessment, which had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points, reflected a big shift from a September poll that found a 39-to-55 percent split.