AP poll: Americans support drone strikes in war on terror

If people believe that Barack Obama’s polling numbers will suffer because of his ramped-up use of drone warfare against terrorists, a new AP poll shows the futility of that line of argument. The debate has raged for years among the intelligentsia about the lawfulness and ethics of drone warfare, but it’s barely made a dent in the electorate. Wide bipartisan majorities support the policy, even after the accidental killing of two Western hostages:

Nearly three-quarters of Americans say it’s acceptable for the U.S. to use an unmanned aerial drone to kill an American citizen abroad if that person has joined a terror organization, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

A majority, 6 in 10, supports the use of drones to target terrorists in general. Only 13 percent oppose the use of drones, the poll said, and another 24 percent don’t feel strongly either way. …

Support for targeted killing with drones crosses party lines, the new poll found. Nearly 6 in 10 Democrats favor using drones to bomb members of terrorist groups, while only 16 percent are opposed. Among Republicans, 72 percent are in favor and only 10 percent are opposed. Independents are more ambivalent, with 45 percent in favor and 12 percent opposed; 37 percent are neutral on the issue.

Only 5% overall “strongly oppose” the use of drones in counter-terror operations. Thirty-four percent “strongly favor” the policy, and even among those who don’t feel strongly either way, the balance tilts far more in favor, 27/8. The support narrows a bit when the risk of inadvertent killing of Americans gets introduced into the equation, but it’s still 56/43 in favor. When the Americans in question belong to the terror groups being targeted, the reluctance disappears altogether — and in fact, at 86/12, the acceptability of drones skyrockets.

Never underestimate the revulsion for traitors, it seems.

If the debate is over on drone warfare, get ready for the debate on drone warfare polling:

Drone skeptics say most polls on the subject frame the question with the assumption that those targeted are terrorists, when it’s not clear that is always the case.

“Almost everyone, of course, is going to support killing people who are trying to kill us, but that’s not who we are necessarily targeting in each case,” said Sarah Kreps, an associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.

Kreps examined poll data and found that if respondents are confronted with evidence of errors and civilian casualties in some drone strikes, support for the strikes drops below a majority.

Kudos to AP/GfK for including this point in their reports, but it’s not necessarily the case. This poll does include a question about potential errors — the inadvertent killing of Americans — and drone warfare still gets majority support. This approach assumes that people don’t already factor errors and civilian casualties into the mix, but there’s no evidence that a straight-up question on drones strips people of their ability to think through the complexities of the policies. Introducing too much of that context risks turning a survey into a push poll.

That doesn’t necessarily make drone warfare a good policy, or the best option for fighting terror networks. But this poll shows that politicians run very little risk in supporting it as either one component or the main element in our fight against terrorists abroad.