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Americans ‘favor diplomacy over military action on Iran’? Well, not exactly‎

by Shmuel Rosner

July 19, 2012 | 8:11 am

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo: Reuters)

Since we run our own tracking of Iran polls, we pretty much know what they say ‎about American public opinion as it relates to policy options on Iran (you can see our ‎Iran Trend tracker here). To sum it up very briefly: Americans do not want Iran to ‎become a nuclear power; they want to prevent such scenario from happening.

When ‎presented with various options for halting Iran’s nuclear program, they’d choose the ‎less violent option (diplomacy, sanctions) over attacking Iran. That’s quite reasonable. ‎However, when Americans are presented with only two options – learning to live with ‎a nuclearized Iran or attacking it to prevent this from happening, they tend to support ‎an attack (but not as consistently). ‎

Three days ago, the Council on Foreign Relation has released its updated report on ‎Public Opinion on Global Issues, a report that includes a chapter on Dealing with ‎Iran’s Nuclear Program. Here’s what this chapter says – a conclusion that is almost ‎identical to ours:‎

A large majority of Americans believe that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, rather ‎than limiting itself to energy production, and there is substantial concern over this. ‎There is widespread pessimism that a nuclear armed Iran would be deterred by the ‎threat of retaliation. Nonetheless, presented a menu of options, few endorse a ‎military option while majorities favor either diplomatic options or sanctions. ‎Majorities express pessimism about the likely effectiveness of a military strike. ‎Diplomatic efforts to engage Iran are supported by majorities. However, questions ‎that present a choice between a military option and inaction, imply that a military ‎strike would be effective in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon (a ‎controversial assumption), or pose a hypothetical scenario in which Iran is clearly on ‎the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, elicit support for military action among ‎about half of respondents or modest majorities.‎

The interpretive CFR tone, though, is a bit different from ours. Look at the manner ‎and the language Stewart Patrick of CFR employs as he describes the report’s findings ‎to CFR and The Atlantic readers:‎

Amidst the heightened cacophony of policymakers and pundits, there remains ‎strong public support in the United States—and in many countries abroad—for ‎sanctions, but widespread opposition to the use of military force.‎

Have something to say about this? Join the debate at Rosner’s Domain on Facebook

Patrick also provides the readers with a link to a graph of polls – a graph that includes ‎only the results of the polls that reflect his ultimate argument:‎

Photo

Reading through his article I was struggling to find a word of explanation that could ‎put these findings in context – but all I found was this:‎

American support for military force rises if depicted as a last resort. In 2011, the ‎German Marshall Fund (GMF) presented U.S. and European citizens with two ‎options: take “military action against Iran” or “simply accept that Iran could ‎acquire nuclear weapons.” Faced with this scenario, 49 percent of Americans and ‎‎42 percent of Europeans favored the use of military force. (This question ‎assumed, somewhat problematically, that military force would necessarily achieve ‎the goal of dismantling the Iranian nuclear program.)‎

I’m sorry, but this is a manipulative way of presenting the findings. The author ‎emphasizes the fact that presented with an option of diplomatic prevention, most ‎Americans would prefer it to military action (and why wouldn’t they?), without even ‎hinting that the possibility of diplomatic prevention is viewed by some as an ‎illusionary course. ‎

On the other hand, when Patrick reports that the majority would support an attack if ‎this were the only option for prevention, he hastens to dismiss such a line of ‎questioning, on the grounds that it “problematically [assumes] that military force ‎would necessarily achieve the goal of dismantling the Iranian nuclear program”. Well, ‎doesn’t the first line of questioning, the one with many options, also “problematically ‎‎[assume that diplomacy] would necessarily achieve the goal of dismantling the Iranian ‎nuclear program”?‎

In Patrick’s tone there’s clear motivation: He wants his readers to assume that the ‎public opposes an attack on Iran. But that is not what the polls are telling us. Patrick ‎might be right to be skeptical about the option of attack, as Prime Minister Netanyahu ‎might be right to be skeptical about diplomacy. No option is free of weaknesses, and ‎no option assures success. ‎

Looking at polls though, is not the way for one to get an answer on the right policy, it ‎is a way for one to understand where the public stands. And unlike the impression ‎Patrick creates, the public is undecided on the method but quite sure about the desired ‎outcome: Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped - by whatever means the pollster ‎puts before us. ‎

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