National security becomes Republicans’ top issue after Afghanistan withdrawal

September 02, 2021, 4:34 PM UTC

As the U.S. exited Afghanistan last week, Americans in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll lowered their assessments of President Joe Biden’s job performance and expressed increased concern about the possibility of terrorist attacks against the U.S. More Republicans now name national security as the issue they consider most important than they do any other issue. Despite Americans’ misgivings about their country’s 20-year war in Afghanistan and how it ended, many still want the U.S. to be a global leader.

The poll was conducted August 28 - 31, concluding just after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan and after the suicide bombing at the Kabul Airport that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 100 Afghans. The attack was carried out by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K, and now far more Americans say they see the Islamic State as a threat than do China, Russia, or Iran.  

More Americans disapprove of President Biden’s foreign policy work 

 Americans have soured on Biden’s handling of foreign policy over the last two months. In late June (the last time this question was asked), 45% of Americans approved of how Biden was handling foreign policy, while 40% disapproved.  

Now a greater share of Americans (49%) disapprove of his handling of foreign policy, while 39% approve. The shift against Biden’s foreign policy performance has been about as big among Democrats as Republicans: 16% of Democrats now disapprove, up nine percentage points from the June poll. 

Biden’s overall approval by Americans also has slipped since late June, when 49% approved of his job performance and 41% disapproved. Now about as many approve as disapprove. That’s little changed over the past two weeks. 

Americans see the Taliban and ISIS as immediate threats 

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has reshaped Americans’ view of the region. More than four in 10 Americans (43%) describe Afghanistan as an enemy of the U.S., just about as many as see Iran that way, and more than call China or Russia an enemy. Only North Korea is viewed by more (57%) as an enemy. Just 26% described Afghanistan as an enemy in March 2020. 

More than half of Americans say they think the Taliban (51%) —and Islamic State (57%) — pose an immediate and serious threat to the U.S. That’s more than say the same about China, Iran and Russia.  

For China, Iran, the Taliban and the Islamic State, Republicans are at least 15 percentage points more likely to see an immediate and serious threat to the U.S. Not so for Russia. A greater share of Democrats (33%) than Republicans (22%) see Russia as a serious and immediate threat.  

Concerns about national security have risen 

National security more broadly has risen in importance for many Americans. It is a very important issue to nearly two in three Americans (64%) – and to eight in ten Republicans (81%). That’s up from 60% of Americans and 75% of Republicans a month earlier. 

Republicans’ prioritization of national security is especially evident in how many rank the issue at the top of their list. Nearly one in four (22%) of Republicans call national security their top issue, more than double the share (10%) a month ago. That’s also seven percentage points more than the share of Republicans now who name jobs and the economy as their most important issue, nine points higher than taxes and spending, and 11 points higher than immigration. 

Far fewer Democrats are most focused on national security. Democrats, possibly reacting to wildfires, heat waves and hurricanes, now rank climate change and the environment as their top issue (27%), four points ahead of health care, which has typically been Democrats’ most important issue for the last few years. Just 5% name national security as their top issue. 

The Afghanistan developments have stoked Americans’ fear of a major terrorist attack in this country. Now three in 10 (30%) think a major terrorist attack on the U.S. in the next year is more likely than not — up seven points in the last week (from 23%) and 11 points in the last two weeks (from 19%). 

Afghanistan
 

Americans still support U.S. global leadership 

Was the war a mistake? Nearly half (45%) of Americans say yes; just one in three (32%) say no. The plan to end the war by withdrawing troops remains popular:  50% approve while 36% do not. But fewer people approve of the execution of the plan.  

As many call the withdrawal a mistake as not (41% for both). Nearly two-thirds (64%) of the public, including nearly half (48%) of Democrats, say it has been handled badly, with the largest share of blame going to President Biden: 89% of those who say the evacuation was handled very badly include Biden among the responsible parties. Nearly half of Americans (50%) think the military should have stayed past Sept. 11, 2021, to evacuate more Afghan refugees.  

Most Americans don’t want the country to leave the global stage, however. By a margin of two to one (52% to 26%), they believe the U.S. should be the most important global leader. A greater share of Republicans (76%) want U.S. world leadership. But current reality may not match what people want to see in U.S. global leadership. More than four in 10 Americans (43%) think this country plays a less important and less powerful role as a world leader today than it did four years ago, at the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency. Just 17% think the country plays a more important and more powerful role now. 

Many Americans want to see other types of global involvement from their country. Nearly half (48%) think the U.S. has a responsibility to provide military assistance when asked to by allies, and about the same proportion (45%) see a special responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to countries that need help. A smaller share of Republicans (35%) think the U.S. has a special responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance. 

Military assistance is a rare issue that gets identical (52%) support from Democrats and Republicans. 

Many Americans also want to see the country intervene to stop terrorism. More than half of Americans (55%) this week say that the U.S. would be safer if it confronts countries and groups that promote terrorism, while 45% say staying out of other countries’ affairs would make the U.S. safer. 

See the toplines and crosstabs from this Economist/YouGov Poll 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between August 28 - 31, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3.0% for the overall sample.    

Image: Getty