The unpopularity of war

With a new US strategy on Afghanistan set to be announced and a rising Australian death toll, three pollsters recently surveyed opinion on Australia’s troop deployment. Their results were consistently against expanding our troop commitment, and showed that about half of their respondents did not want our troops there at all.

ACNielsen found 51% of voters against the deployment, and two-thirds against sending more troops, with 30% in favour. Essential Media found 50% in favour of withdrawing and only 14% in favour of sending more troops. Newspoll also found two-thirds of its respondents against sending more troops and 28% in favour. The only real difference is opinon on sending more – this is probably a question effect, with Essential Media having an option of keeping the same number.

While these are negative results for the Afghanistan commitment, there is little evidence that recent Australian deaths have hardened opinion. A Lowy Institute poll last year found 56% against Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan, up from 46% in 2007. And these figures are not radically different from those recorded on Iraq – for example in 2005 a small majority opposed Australia’s continuing involvement in Iraq.

Generally, it is a good thing that the Australian public is reluctant to support war. But these figures do also give weight to the concerns of conservative pessimists that Western publics have the lost the will to fight for anything, and not just wars without (perhaps) sufficiently clear links to immediate security. If these wars are unpopular with minimal casualties, how unpopular would they be with a large number of deaths?