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The United Nations and the Use of Military Force

Consistent with the UN Charter, a large majority believes that UN Security Council approval provides important legitimacy for the use of military force. Americans show significant resistance to using US force without such approval except in self-defense or when vital interests are at stake. The case of Iraq was complex in that Americans were quite resistant to using force without UN approval, but this resistance was diminished by the argument that the war was an act of self-defense and thus UN approval was not necessary, as well as the classical tendency to rally-round the President once the use of military force commences. Even when it comes to defending other countries from aggression, Americans show reluctance to do so except as part of UN operation. Support is quite strong for contributing US troops to UN peacekeeping operations.

Consistent with the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, Americans see the UN as generally providing an important legitimacy to the use of military force. Numerous polls have found that Americans tend to be more supportive of specific military operations when they are approved by the UN. As a general principle, 72% agreed that "The use of military force is more legitimate when the United Nations approves it" according to a December 2006 WPO/KN poll. A May 2005 GMF poll found slightly lower levels agreeing.[1]

A very strong majority agrees that the US getting UN approval for the use of force is important for maintaining international order. In a February 2003 PIPA poll, 71% found the following argument convincing (40% very):

If countries were to feel that they could attack each other whenever they thought it was best, the world would soon fall into chaos and conflict. It is very important for the US to set a good example to other countries by getting UN approval for taking military action.

Only 26% found it unconvincing (11% very).[2]

Polls have consistently found that Americans are quite resistant to having the US use military force without UN approval. Most recently this view was expressed in regard to the possibility of the US using military force against Iran. Asked in the July 2006 Chicago Council poll about the US undertaking a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, 58% said that it should be done "only if the UN authorizes the strike and other allies participate." Only 18% supported a military strike "even if the US has to act on its own. Twenty percent rejected a military strike all together."[3] Overall, most Americans support the UN taking the lead in handling the situation with Iran's nuclear program. (see Dealing with Iran) Americans also showed strong resistance to using military force without UN approval in the runup to the Iraq war. [See section below on the Case of Iraq]

When UN Approval is Necessary for the Use of Military Force

Americans have complex responses to the question of when the United States or nations in general can use force without UN approval. Consistent with the UN Charter, they endorse the right to act in self-defense or in defense of allies, including acting preemptively if a threat is imminent.

A large majority endorses the view that the US has the right to protect its vital interests without UN approval. In the May 2005 GMF poll, 62% agreed that "When vital interests of our country are involved, it is justified to bypass the UN."[4]

A Pew poll from February 2004 also found plurality support for acting unilaterally against an undefined "international threat." Asked whether "the United States should have UN approval before it uses military force to deal with an international threat or do you think that would make it too difficult for our country to deal with international threats?" 48% said getting such approval would be too difficult while 41% said UN approval was necessary. This result may have been stronger one way or the other if the nature of the "international threat" had been more clearly defined.[5]

Americans also tend to believe that, as a general principle, UN approval is not necessary for defending another country that has been attacked-consistent with the principle of forming mutual security alliances. In a 2004 Chicago Council poll, 59% said that a country should have this right even without approval from the UN, while 34% said that it should not.[6]

In the event that a country is supporting a terrorist group that poses a threat, Americans also see other countries as having the right to act unilaterally. The Chicago Council in 2004 found 61% saying that countries can act without UN approval to stop a country from supporting terrorist groups. However, a further question made it clear that the majority (58%) supported the US having the right to overthrow such a government "only when the US has strong evidence that the terrorist group poses an imminent threat." Just 11% felt that the US had the right to overthrow the government "when the US thinks that the terrorist group may pose a threat at some point in the future, whether or not it poses such a threat now." Another 26% felt that the US should not overthrow a government without first getting UN approval. In other words, this right derives from the principle of self-defense from an imminent attack.[7]

A November 2003 PIPA poll also found that UN approval was not necessary once a terrorist group had actually attacked. Respondents were asked to "indicate under what conditions you think countries have the right to overthrow another government when they have evidence that it is providing substantial support to a terrorist group." Given three options, just 23% said "whenever they deem it necessary, even without UN approval" while the same percentage, said that a country should use military force "only when they first present their evidence to the UN and the UN determines that such an action is necessary." A strong plurality (44%) chose the option that "if the terrorist group has attacked them, UN approval may not be necessary."[8]

Americans reject the idea that countries have the right to take action to prevent a country from acquiring weapons of mass destruction that could be used against it at some point in the future. In a November 2003 PIPA poll, given three options about what rights countries have if they "have evidence that another government is acquiring weapons of mass destruction that could be used to attack them at some point in the future," only 39% chose the option that "they have the right to overthrow the other government, even if they do not have UN approval." Fifty-six percent said they only have the right if "if they first present their evidence to the UN and the UN determines that such an action is necessary" (48%) or that they "never have the right to overthrow the other government" (8%).[9]

When the question does not specify whether the threat is imminent, responses are more divided on whether individual countries have the right to unilaterally use force to prevent countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the July 2004 Chicago Council poll, a slight plurality (50%) said that a country should have a right to use force in this case without UN approval, while 44% said that it should not. This corresponds with the results from the PIPA/KN January 2003 poll, when respondents were asked, "Do you think that a country, without UN approval, does or does not have the right to use military force to prevent another country that does not have nuclear weapons from acquiring them." A plurality of 48% said "countries do not have the right," while 46% said, "countries do have the right." When, in a separate question, respondents were asked specifically whether the US had the right to use military force without UN approval in such a case, they were evenly divided (48% each).[10]

In regard to the more specific case of North Korea's nuclear program, a large majority believes UN approval would be necessary in order to use force to disable it. When the July 2004 Chicago Council poll asked whether it would be necessary to first get approval from the UN Security Council if the United States were to consider using military force to destroy North Korea's nuclear capability, 68% said that it would be necessary, and 25% said it would not.[11]

In the same 2004 Chicago Council poll, respondents were given different scenarios and asked whether they would support the US using military force to destroy North Korea's nuclear weapons capability if North Korea continued to develop nuclear weapons. Respondents were presented the situation under various conditions of South Korean, US allies, or UN approval for these actions. In half the cases it was specified that the UN Security Council approved of the action and in half it was specified that it did not. Overall, with UN approval, support averaged 66%, while without it, support averaged 48%.[12]

This hesitation to act unilaterally against North Korea in this situation was also established in the January 2003 PIPA/KN poll. Asked "Putting aside what you would favor the US doing, do you think the US would or would not have the right, without UN approval, to bomb a nuclear power plant in North Korea if it thought the North Koreans were using it to make nuclear weapons," 51% said the "US would not have the right" with 45% saying the "US would have the right.[13]

A substantially larger percentage would prefer for the UN to take the lead. When asked who they would prefer to take the lead in dealing with North Korea's program, PIPA/KN polls in March and April 2003 showed that about 7 in 10 respondents preferred to see the UN, rather than the US, "take the lead" in "trying to stop North Korea from making nuclear weapons."[14]

A majority rejects the idea of countries having the right to unilaterally restore a democratic government. In the 2004 Chicago Council poll, a majority of 53% said that a country should not have the right to forcefully restore an overthrown democratic government without UN approval, while just 40% said that it should.[15]

The Case of the Iraq War

The case of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 poses a significant counterpoint to Americans insistence on having UN approval for using military force except in self-defense. Polling during the runup to the war found consistent majorities saying that they would only support military action with UN approval. But when President Bush took action without UN approval the public did support him. How did this unfold?

In February 2003, PIPA asked respondents ". . . whether the US should use its troops to invade Iraq and overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein." Only 32% of Americans said "the US should invade Iraq even if we have to go it alone." Fifty-two percent said "The US should only invade Iraq with UN approval and the support of its allies," and 15% said the "US should not invade Iraq."[16]

Other polling organizations found similar results. A January 2003 CNN/Harris Interactive poll found only 27% felt the "U.S. should send ground troops to Iraq ...even if the United Nations opposes such action." Fifty-one percent agreed that the "US should send ground troops to Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power only if the United Nations supports such action." Seventeen percent said the "U.S. should not send troops to Iraq � regardless of whether the United Nations favors or opposes such action." Five percent were not sure.[17]

Three separate NBC News polls between December 2002 and February 2003 found 51-65% that said the US "should take military action only if the UN supports it" and a Pew Research Center poll in February 2003 found that 57% of Americans said the US "should first get a UN resolution" before using force. In two CBS polls, Iraq was also presented as a "clear and present danger to American interests." Even in this case, however, 56% of Americans in early February and 64% in late February 2003 said the "U.S. needs to wait for approval of the United Nations before taking any action against Iraq." Only 31% in early and 38% in late February said "the United States needs to act now, even without the support of the United Nations."[18]

In Newsweek polls conducted between January and March 2003, respondents were provided, in three separate questions, options regarding different levels of participation in an Iraqi conflict. When respondents were asked whether they would support military action if "the United States joined together with its major allies to attack Iraq, with the full support of the United Nations Security Council," 81-85% of Americans said they would support such action. Similar questions were asked in two Los Angeles Times polls conducted in January and February 2003. In January and February 2003, 65 and 62% respectively agreed when asked whether the US should "take military action against Iraq only if that military action has the support of the United Nations Security Council." Only 30 percent in January and 37% in February disagreed.[19]

How then did it happen once hostilities began the public did support the action without UN approval? It was not simply that the public changed its mind. A number of factors, already apparent in polls that were taken before the war, foreshadowed how this shift would occur. These included a an underlying belief that taking action against Iraq was in fact a legitimate act of self defense based on the belief that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda when it attacked the US on September 11, a rally-the-round-the-president effect and the mitigating factor of some allied participation.

The Belief that Iraq Had Effectively Attacked the US: Even as large majorities opposed taking action against Iraq without UN approval there was a key factor operating the minds of many Americans that logically weakened the inhibition against using military force without UN approval. This was the belief that Iraq had provided support to al Qaeda when it attacked the US on September 11 and thus had effectively attacked the US. Thus taking military action against Iraq was arguably an act of self-defense and not constrained by the obligation to gain UN approval.

Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a modest majority believed Iraq gave support to al-Qaeda. The PIPA/KN February 2003 poll showed a majority of 56% that said they were convinced that Iraq had given substantial support to al-Qaeda (36%) or was even directly involved in the September 11th attacks (20%). Twenty-nine percent only believed that a few al-Qaeda individuals have visited Iraq or had contact with Iraqi officials, while another 7% said there was no connection at all. [20a] [Note: Other polls prior to the invasion found higher percentages affirming Iraq's involvement in the September 11th attacks. However, these polls did not offer respondents the fine-grained options that allow them to clarify the nature of the link. Thus it appears that some may have been expressing their belief in some kind of link, rather than an actual involvement in the September 11 attacks.[20b]

Those who had the belief that Iraq was in some way connected to September 11 showed higher support for going to war without multilateral approval. In the PIPA/KN February 2003 poll, among those who believed that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11, 45% said that "the US should invade Iraq, even if the US has to go it alone." Among those who believed that Iraq had given al-Qaeda substantial support, but was not involved in September 11, support dropped to 37% for an invasion without UN approval or allied support. Support for unilateral action was much lower among those who believed that a few al-Qaeda individuals had contact with Iraqi officials (25% said go it alone) or that there was no connection at all (15% said go it alone).[20c]

In a March 2003 poll, just prior to the invasion, Gallup found that those who perceived a connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11 widely felt it was a reason for supporting the invasion of Iraq. Of the 51% that said they believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11th attacks, 40% said this link was "the main reason" (13%) or "one reason" (27%) why they would support invading Iraq. Just 11% said it was not a reason they would support an invasion.[20d]

Several poll questions also revealed that if new evidence emerged linking Iraq to terrorism, this would strengthen support for taking military action. In Pew polls taken in both January and April 2002, when respondents were asked to suppose "we learned that Iraq helped terrorists attack the United States," an overwhelming 83% said they would see it as a "very important reason to justify the use of military force."[20e]

Rallying-Round-the President: Historical research has shown that once the president decides to use military force there tends to be a significant surge in support the action. This appears to have occurred in the case of Iraq and to have played a role in over-riding the inhibition against using force without UN approval.

Interestingly this shift did not simply occur suddenly but was clearly foreshadowed some months before the military action commenced. In a December 2002 PIPA/KN poll, respondents were presented the following question:

Imagine that after the initial UN inspections in Iraq, the US and other countries in the UN Security Council disagree about whether Iraq is adequately cooperating with the UN inspectors. President Bush moves that the UN approve an invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but most of the other members of the UN Security Council want to continue to use threats and diplomatic pressure to get Iraq to comply, and the motion does not pass. President Bush then decides that the US will undertake an invasion of Iraq, even if the US has to do so on its own. Just based on this information, what do you think your attitude would be about this decision?

While only 43% said they "would agree with this decision," an additional 27% said they "would not agree with this decision, but would still support the president." Thus, including those willing to rally around the president, 70% of Americans were willing to support going to war with Iraq, but only a minority really agreed with the decision to give up on the UN route.[21a]

This rally-round-the-president effect began to take effect even before hostilities began. In the days before action commenced, but when it was clear that the president has decided to take action, support for taking action already began to increase.

Shortly after the war started, PIPA found that a significant number of respondents were even willing to report that their support was an expression of support for the president not a real approval of the decision to go to war. In a May 2003 PIPA poll, 68% of respondents said "the US made the right decision ... in going to war against Iraq." These respondents were then asked whether this was their position because they believe going to war was "the best thing to do" or because they were not sure it was the right thing to do but "support Bush's decision, because he is president." Fifteen percent said they were supporting the President, though 53% held to the view it was the best thing to do. (Some of these may actually have also been simply supporting the president because the best way to support the president may not be to that one does not think it was really the best thing to do.)

As is often the case, this rally-round-president effect soon began to fade. The percentage saying going to war was the right decision declined steadily over the subsequent months. By December 2003 only 55% said it was the right decision and in the follow up question just 42% said it was the "best thing to do" while 13% said they were simply supporting the president.[21b]

Allied Participation: One factor was the fact that the US had some allied participation. While earlier polling found Americans also insisting on UN approval in the immediate runup to the war in some cases a majority expressed approval with allied participation, while purely unilateral action was opposed to the end. This rise in support during the immediate runup was presumably due to the growing perception that the president had already effectively decided to go to war, this activating enough rally-round-the-president effect to override, in conjunction with the mitigation of allied participation, the opposition to acting without UN approval.

In January 2003, asked by the Los Angeles Times if they would support military action if "the United States and one or two of its major allies attacked Iraq, [but] without the support of the United Nations," support for such action was just 40% in January. But just before the war in March 2003, once it became clear that support from the UN would not be obtained, support rose to 54%.[22a]

In the Los Angeles Times polls mentioned above, respondents were also asked if they would support military action in Iraq if "the United Nations Security Council does not approve military action against Iraq but the US has the support of some allies, such as Great Britain." In this case a slight majority of 51% expressed support as early as January rising to 55% in February.[22b]

At no time, however, did Americans support unilateral action. When respondents were asked by Newsweek if "the United States acted alone in attacking Iraq, without the support of the United Nations," only 31% in January and 43% in March 2003 supported military action.[22c]

The Persistence of the Norm Against Unilateral Military Action: Even as the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, without UN approval, Americans confirmed their continuing support for the norm against unilateral military action. In a poll conducted by PIPA in March 2003, respondents were asked whether "in the future the US should or should not feel more free to use military force without UN authorization." A strong majority of 66% in March felt the US "should not feel more free" while only 29% felt the US "should feel more free." These results were relatively unchanged in April and June PIPA polls, with 60% or more continuing to say the US should not feel more free to use force without UN authorization in the future.[23a]

An argument that was particularly strong at the time was that acting without such UN approval would he harmful to the US in a variety of ways. In a February 2003 PIPA poll 71% agreed that, "If the US proceeds to take action in defiance of the other countries on the UN Security Council, it could seriously damage US relations with some of its most important allies and could weaken support for the war against terrorism."[23b]

Using Force Through the United Nations

Americans show much greater readiness to use military force when it is part of a UN-sponsored operation, rather than acting alone. The Chicago Council has asked specifically about using US troops in the event that North Korea invades South Korea in recent years, both under the auspices of a "UN-sponsored effort to reverse the aggression" and without mention of the United Nations. In July 2006, the Chicago Council found 65% in favor of the US "contributing military forces, together with other countries, to a UN sponsored effort to reverse the aggression" if North Korea invaded South Korea (30% opposed). In comparison, only 45% favor the use of US troops "if North Korea invaded South Korea," (without mention of the UN or an international effort) while 49% were opposed. This majority support for a UN-sponsored international effort and a more divided response on using troops without mention of the UN in this scenario has been consistent over 2004 and 2002.[24a]

This clear preference for the use of force within the context of an international effort also extends to the scenario posed by the Chicago Council in 2002 on whether the US troops should be used if Iraq were to invade Saudi Arabia. While 77% favored the US contributing troops to a “UN-sponsored effort” together with other countries (18% were opposed), only 48% favored using US troops when the UN was not mentioned (46% were opposed).[24b]

Majorities have also consistently rejected the use of US troops in other conventional aggression scenarios where a UN or international effort is not mentioned, including if China were to invade Taiwan and if “Arab forces” were to invade Israel (with the exception of if Iran were to invade Israel, where 53 percent favor the use of US troops).[24c]

Earlier polls have also found a very strong preference for the US to use military force through the UN over acting alone. Presented a series of arguments in an April 1995 PIPA poll (when the UN operation in Bosnia was not going well), 89% agreed with the position that:

When there is a problem in the world that requires the use of military force, it is generally best for the US to address the problem together with other nations working through the UN, rather than going it alone.

This attitude was sustained even in the face of a strong challenge that the US would be more successful acting on its own. Only 29% agreed with the argument:

"When there is a problem in the world that requires the use of military force, it is better for the US to act on its own rather than working through the UN because the US can move more quickly and probably more successfully."

Sixty-six percent rejected it.[25]

PIPA asked respondents in June 1996: "As a general rule, when it is necessary to use military force to deal with trouble spots in the world, do you feel more comfortable having the US contribute to a UN military action or for the US to take military action by itself?" Sixty-nine percent preferred the US to contribute to a UN action, while only 24% preferred the US to act alone.[26]

ATIF asked in June 1995, "When faced with problems involving aggression, who do you think should be 'policeman to the world,' the US or the UN?" Only 19% said the US, while 76% said the UN. ATIF also asked, "When faced with future problems involving aggression, who should take the lead, the US or the UN?" In June 1995, 69% said the UN, down from 85% in March 1991, shortly after the Gulf War. [27]

At times the majority has even been responsive to the idea that the US should restrain itself from ever using force unilaterally even when it is in the US national interest. The Los Angeles Times asked in December 1993, "Should the US try to use force only in concert with the United Nations, or should the US use force in our own national interest regardless of the United Nations?" Fifty-nine percent said the US should act only with the UN in using force, while just 31% said the US should use force to pursue national interests. In a December 1992 Newsweek poll, an extraordinary 87% agreed "the US should commit its troops only as part of a United Nations operation." [28] [c7] While this finding does demonstrate how strongly Americans prefer multilateral force, it is unlikely that such a large number really meant that the United States should never use force unilaterally.

Contributing to UN Peacekeeping Operations

Consistent with their support for participating in UN military operations in general a majority of Americans generally supports US participation in UN peacekeeping operations. The July 2004 Chicago Council survey asked, "In general, when the United States is asked to be part of a United Nations international peacekeeping force in a troubled part of the world, do you think we should take part, or should we leave this job to other countries?" More than three in four (78%) said that the US should take part, while just 19% said it should leave the job to other countries.

When the 2002 Chicago Council survey asked a simpler question nearly two-thirds (64%) said the US should take part in UN peacekeeping, while just 23% said the US should not. Another 11% volunteered that it depends on the circumstances.[29]

Americans also show support for contributing to specific peacekeeping operations, though the operations were sometimes described as "international" not specifically a United Nations operation:

  • In 2006 65% favored the US being "part of an international peacekeeping force to stop the killing in Darfur" (Chicago Council 2006)[30a]

  • In 2004 the Chicago Council found 60% favored being part of "an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan." In 2003 PIPA found 67% supporting "contributing troops to a UN peacekeeping force in Afghanistan," with 66% favoring expanding the peacekeeping operation beyond Kabul.[30b]

  • In both 2004 and 2006, Chicago Council found a slight majority would have supported the use of US troops as part of "an international peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians," down from 65% in 2002.[30c]

  • In 2004, 51% favored contributing to US troops to a "UN-sponsored force to keep the peace between India and Pakistan." Two years later in 2006, when the reference to the United Nations was removed support dropped to 40%.[30d]

  • An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in July 2003 also found 58% approving of "sending a thousand American soldiers to Liberia as part of a UN peacekeeping force."[30e]

One of the attractions of UN peacekeeping appears to be its potential for burden- sharing. In an April 1995 PIPA poll, an overwhelming 86% agreed that: "The only way for the US to not always be the world policeman is to allow the UN the means to perform some policing functions. UN peacekeeping is a way we can share the burden with other countries." Seventy-six percent agreed in PIPA’s February 1994 poll.[31]

Americans have expressed confidence in the effectiveness of the UN in peacekeeping, even when US-UN relations hit a low point over the Iraq War. For example, in April 2003 a poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal asked Americans "based on its role in the recent Iraq conflict, do you think that the United Nations can effectively function as an international peacekeeping force," 50% of Americans said that the UN "can function effectively." Only 42% said that the UN "cannot function effectively."[32]This is surprisingly strong support given the timing of the poll and the unfavorable ratings the UN was receiving during this same period. [See General Attitudes Toward the UN]

Mild Preference for UN over NATO

What evidence there is suggests that, if anything, Americans lean toward preferring the UN over NATO as a vehicle for using US military force. In July 2000, COPA asked whether "As a general rule, when it is necessary for the US to use military force, do you think it is best for the US to act as part of a United Nations operation, act as part of a NATO operation, or act on its own?" A 49% plurality preferred the US to act as part of a UN operation; 26% preferred NATO; and only 17% preferred the US to act on its own.

In PIPA's April 1994 poll, respondents were asked about their preferences for a peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement in Bosnia. Asked "Would you prefer that this force be under UN command, NATO command, or would you say it does not matter much to you?" a plurality of 39% chose UN command, 25% chose NATO, and 29% were indifferent. [33]

In the Wirthlin Group's December 1995 poll--taken just before the deployment of the NATO-run Bosnia peacekeeping force--respondents were told that "the warring parties have just agreed on a peace settlement" and were then asked which of three following options they would prefer for Bosnia: "A military force, including some Americans, run by NATO to enforce that peace settlement; a peacekeeping force, including some Americans, under the United Nations that would monitor that peace settlement; or no organized international presence..." Fifty percent thought a force under the UN would be the best option. Only 17% favored a NATO-run force, while 25% opted for "no organized international presence." [34]

A possible problem with this finding, though, is that each of these command arrangements was also associated with a different form of engagement--the UN command was associated with monitoring, while the NATO command was associated with enforcement. However, it is unlikely that this factor determined the outcome, because other data suggest that more Americans would prefer enforcement over simple monitoring. In April 1995--seven months before the Dayton accord--PIPA asked respondents to imagine that the warring parties in Bosnia came to a peace agreement and the UN agreed to police it. In such an event, 62% thought that "if one side violates the agreement," the peacekeepers "should be able to use military force to force [the violating side] into compliance," while just 34% thought that "UN peacekeepers should simply monitor the borders between the parties." [35]

The same Wirthlin group poll also asked respondents what kind of response they would like to see to conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Haiti. Given three options, only 14% chose the option closest to working through NATO--having "a few big countries like the United States and those in Europe deal with the situation on their own." A plurality of 48% opted for "the UN tak[ing] the lead," while 30% said that "the outside world [should] just stay out." [36]

Putting all these findings together, it appears that the public's comparative comfort with the UN imprimatur is a significant factor that can outweigh popular frustration with the lack of assertiveness often found in UN peacekeeping.



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