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Americans OK with 'military action' against ISIS, but not another long war

For now, most Americans back President Obama’s plan to escalate airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. But they are wary of a conflict that could last years, and they definitely oppose use of American ground troops.

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Protestors call on President Barack Obama to help end the bloodshed of Iraqi Christians as hundreds demonstrate against the terrorist group ISIS in Sterling Heights, Michigan on Aug.10, 2014.

Brandy Baker/Detroit News/AP

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Americans may be war weary after years of costly conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, but most are not eager to give up the fight against what they see as a new threat to national security.

That threat is the radical, murderous group calling itself the “Islamic State,” also known by the acronyms ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

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A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll shows that nearly half of all Americans (47 percent) believe the country is less safe than any time since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – substantially more than the 28 percent figure the same poll found last year. The recent beheadings of two American journalists by ISIS fighters, plus this week’s events noting the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001, no doubt heighten a sense of concern if not fear.

This poll also found that more than six in 10 respondents believe that taking military action against ISIS is in the nation’s interest. While 40 percent of respondents say US military action against ISIS should be limited to air strikes, another 34 percent say it should include both air strikes and combat troops.

“A very war-weary country … seems to have woken up to the real threat that ISIS may present,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his colleagues at Hart Research, said in reporting the poll results on NBC.

In his primetime speech this week, President Obama said that 475 US military personnel will be deployed to Iraq, bringing the total in the country to about 1,600.

“In coming days we’re going to be more aggressive and shift a focus from what has been to date primarily defensive in nature to more offensive in nature,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters Friday, speaking of air strikes that will now target ISIS leaders.

Cautionary statements about this new war front are heard from antiwar and some church groups as well as from some analysts.

“What’s the exit strategy?” asks Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius. “How will the United States and its allies know when they have ‘won’? Or will this be more like the Cold War, a decades-long ideological battle punctuated by periods of intense local combat? If so, are the American people ready for such a long and patient struggle?”

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Brookings Institution military analyst Michael O’Hanlon says it could take as many as 5,000 US troops to adequately train Iraqi forces in the field – particularly given their poor performance earlier in facing ISIS forces.

“It's very optimistic to think we can … just advise them at the very top level,” O’Hanlon told NPR.

“It will be necessary to introduce [American] mentoring and advising teams even at the unit level, even at the combat unit level,” he said on Morning Edition Friday. “The Iraqi Army is going to need to essentially in the end do its own surge into cities like Ramadi and Fallujah and Tikrit and Mosul…. But it requires a creation of a whole new kind of Iraqi military formation that doesn't presently exist.”

Relatively new in the Pentagon’s lexicon is the concept of the “Long War” – conflicts that involve more than one country or no state actors at all, like al Qaeda or ISIS. (During the Bush administration, “GWOT” – the Global War on Terrorism – became a popular phrase, for which a US military medal now is awarded.)

At the moment, the US is militarily involved in air strikes and/or Special Forces operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan (where some 29,000 American troops remain). Add to that now Syria and the commitments remain widely regional if not global and with no end – or definition of “victory” – in sight or even very well defined.

"The Cold War took 45 years," Elliott Abrams, a top Middle East adviser to President George W. Bush, told the Associated Press. "It's certainly plausible that this could be the same…. It's harder to see how this ends."

Will majority public support for “military action” against ISIS remain as the months and possibly years go on?

That’s an open question, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Sixty-four percent of people surveyed said they backed an airstrike campaign. Only 9 percent favored sending American troops to fight the militants
 
 "People see airstrikes as surgical,” said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark. “They think we are able to go in and do something that affects in a negative way this horrible group of people and we are able to extract ourselves with only a very low risk to American lives.”

But when asked if they supported the air campaign even if it lasts two or three years, the proportion of those in favor dropped to 53 percent.

"There's absolutely no appetite for re-engagement in that region in any prolonged way so we see that support drop off," Clark said.

 "All our conflicts start out popular, but only World War II stayed that way," Heritage Foundation national security expert James Jay Carafano told the AP. "People gradually get less excited over time.”