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Humanitarian Military Intervention in Africa

A majority of Americans support contributing US troops to multilateral humanitarian military interventions in Africa. Support has been quite strong for committing US troops to an operation in Sudan’s Darfur region. Support for contributing troops for Liberia was initially mixed but consolidated once President Bush took action. In retrospect, a strong majority believes the US should have intervened in the Rwanda genocide and polling at the time also found majority support. Contrary to widespread impressions, most Americans have not felt that going into Somalia was a mistake, and would have supported participation in a peacekeeping operation in Burundi.

As a general principle, Americans support intervention in African crises. When asked “Do you think the US should or should not intervene when crises occur in Africa?,” a solid two-thirds (67%) of registered voters polled by BET/CBS News in July 2004 said that it should. [1]

A majority also supports use of US forces in Africa to stop genocide. Polling evidence does not support the widespread assumption that, for reasons related to race or national interests, a majority would be unwilling to support sending US troops to Africa.
In a January 2003 PIPA survey, respondents were asked:

In the future, do you think that the US and other Western powers have a moral obligation to use military force in Africa, if necessary, to prevent one group of people from committing genocide against another, or don't you think so?

Fifty-five percent said the US does have such an obligation. This is virtually unchanged from June 1999, when Pew found 58% saying the US had this moral obligation.

While strong, this support is somewhat lower than for intervention in Europe. When asked the same question about Europe in the January 2003 PIPA poll, 74% said the US has a moral obligation to prevent genocide in Europe, with just 16% saying it does not. Apparently this difference is not due to racist feeling but rather greater satisfaction with the results of operations in Europe – specifically in Bosnia and Kosovo. When Pew asked this question about Europe in 1999, just 60% felt an obligation to intervene – statistically no different than for Africa (support for intervening in Africa was 58%). In the intervening years, Americans may have come to feel that the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo proved effective, thus raising support by 14% to 74%. There were no high-profile peacekeeping successes in Africa in those intervening years. [2]

In addition, a solid majority thinks the US should be willing to assist in African efforts to organize a multilateral force to intervene in crises on the continent. Told in a January 2003 PIPA poll that "The African Union, an organization of all African countries, has proposed establishing a peacekeeping force made up of troops from numerous African countries to intervene when there is severe ethnic conflict or large scale-killings," 59% said the US should be "willing to provide this peacekeeping force with training, equipment and other forms of aid." [2a]

In June 2002, a Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll offered in its list of "possible threats to the vital interest of the United States in the next 10 years" "civil wars in Africa." Only 24% saw this as a critical threat to the US, with 48% rating it "important but not critical" (23% said it was “not important”). Nonetheless, civil wars in Africa were rated as more critical than "the military power of Russia" (which 23% rated critical) or "economic competition from Europe" (which 13% rated critical). [2b]


When asked about use of military force to stop genocide in Darfur, Sudan, a December 2004 PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll found that 74% felt the UN should step in. The poll also asked specifically about willingness to contribute US troops to such an effort:

If other members of the UN are willing to contribute troops to a military operation to stop the genocide in Darfur, do you think the US should or should not be willing to contribute some troops as well?

Sixty percent said the US should be willing, while a third (33%) said it should not. [3]

A previous PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll in July 2004 found that 57% of respondents said the US should be willing to contribute one quarter of troops for a UN military force to enforce the cease-fire agreement in Darfur, if African, European and other countries were willing to contribute three-quarters of the troops. [3a]

If genocide is known to be occurring, respondents were even more likely to support intervention. PIPA/Knowledge Networks asked in the July 2004 poll:

If the UN were to determine that genocide is occurring in Darfur, do you think that then the UN, including the US, should or should not decide to act to stop the genocide even if it requires military force?

Sixty-nine percent said it should, while 19% said it should not.

A majority of Americans tends to believe that genocide is indeed occurring in Darfur. In a July 2004 PIPA/KN poll, asked to choose between two arguments, a majority (56%) chose the one that said:

Nearly a million black African Darfuris have been driven into the desert by Arab militias who have destroyed their farms and prevented them from receiving relief. Unless this is stopped hundreds of thousands will die. Clearly this is genocide.

A quarter (24%) instead chose the position:

While the situation in Darfur may be turning into a humanitarian disaster, it is not really genocide. It is just a civil war between the government and people in a resistant region that happen to be of a different ethnic group. [3b]


In 2003, the UN called for a peacekeeping force to be sent to Liberia to quell fighting between rebels and the government of Charles Taylor. Before President Bush announced on July 25, 2003 that 2,300 US Marines would be stationed off the coat of Liberia to assist West African peacekeepers, a majority of Americans in polls by Gallup and Princeton Survey Research Associates/Newsweek responded favorably when asked if they were willing to send US troops to Liberia as part of a peacekeeping mission.

In the Gallup poll, 57% of respondents said they favored the presence of US ground troops “along with troops from other countries, in an international peacekeeping force in Liberia.” A slightly smaller majority, 51%, said in the Princeton Survey Research Associations/Newsweek poll conducted the same week that they supported sending US troops to Liberia “to participate in a peacekeeping operation there.” The lower result in the Princeton survey may be due to the lack of mention of sharing the peacekeeping duty with other nations. [4]

Other polls conducted before Bush announced his decision to send troops to Liberia showed less than majority support for US deployment to the country. These lower numbers may be the result of mentioning specific numbers of troops to be sent, 1,000-2,000, and specific time commitments at a time when tens of thousands of US troops had already been deployed to Iraq and were beginning to fight a growing insurgency.

Time/CNN/Harris Interactive, for example, asked half of respondents in a July 16-17 poll whether they would favor or oppose “sending about 100 troops into Liberia for a few months or less” and asked the other half of respondents if they favored or opposed “sending about 1,000 troops into Liberia for a year or more.” Half (50%) opposed the lesser troop number being sent for the shorter period of time. Opposition was even higher--57%--to sending more troops for the longer time period. [4a]

After Bush announced his decision to send troops to the region, however, support for the operation was significantly higher. A July 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll that began the day Bush announced that Marines were being sent to the region asked, “Would you favor or oppose the presence of US ground troops, along with troops from other countries in an international peacekeeping force in Liberia?” Sixty-three percent said they would favor that, while 30% opposed it. Another poll by NBC/Wall Street Journal that began the next day also showed majority support (58%) for sending US troops to Liberia. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken a month after Bush’s announcement, and after US troops had deployed onto Liberian soil, found 61% in favor of US troops’ presence in Liberia for peacekeeping. [4b]


In retrospect, Americans feel that stronger action should have been taken to stop the killing in Rwanda in 1994. In January 2003, PIPA found that 66% believed the "UN, including the US, should have gone in with a large military force to occupy the country and stop the killings." This view has been very stable over the past several years--in response to the same question in an April 1995 PIPA poll, 62% felt the UN and US should have gone in. Also in the April 1995 PIPA poll, 74% said the UN should have forcibly entered the country and set up safe havens for people in the country. [5]

In early July, after the genocide had been more widely reported, PIPA found 61% support for the US contributing troops to "a large UN peacekeeping operation" to "occupy [Rwanda] and forcibly stop the killing." [6]

At the time, the US government avoided using the term “genocide” to describe events in Rwanda. If they had been so labeled, support would have likely been higher. Asked in the July 1994 PIPA poll whether genocide was occurring in Rwanda, 61% said yes (the same percentage expressing support for intervention), with only 13% saying no and 25% unsure. [7]

Asked what should happen if the UN were to conclude that genocide is occurring in Rwanda, 80% said the UN, including the US, should intervene to stop it. [8]
At the time, many commentators argued it would not have been possible to evoke public support because most Americans did not think Rwanda was vital to US interests. A June 1994 ABC News/Washington Post poll confirmed that 63% did not believe US vital interests were at stake in Rwanda. [9] But Americans did not see this as a reason to avoid involvement. In the PIPA poll, 62% rejected the argument, "Rwanda is far from the US and we have no real interests there. Therefore, it would be wrong to risk the lives of American troops in a UN peacekeeping operation in Rwanda" (37% supported that argument). [10]

When the US ultimately did send troops as part of the humanitarian operation for Rwandans, the public was supportive. In a CBS News poll conducted at the end of July 1994, 63% said they approved of the decision [11], while in early August a Time/CNN poll found 69% support. [12]


It is a myth that Americans regret having gone into Somalia. Support was strong at the beginning of the operation, and even after the 18 American rangers were killed, several polls found the majority did not call for an immediate withdrawal (for a thorough discussion of polling on the events in Somalia, see the article "The Myth of the Reactive Public," http://www.pipa.org/pub_opinion_chap9.pdf ). In December 1995, a CBS poll asked if the US had made a mistake by going into Somalia, and 66% said it had not. [13] In April 1995, PIPA found that an overwhelming 82% thought that, in retrospect, attempting to deliver humanitarian aid in Somalia "was the right thing to do," while 14% saw it as a "mistake." [14] However, 46% thought it had been a mistake to try to end the civil war, while 43% approved of the effort. [15]


Located next to Rwanda, with a similar ethnic mix, Burundi has long been seen as volatile enough to potentially explode into genocide. There have been repeated calls for establishing a UN peacekeeping operation there. In an April 1995 PIPA poll, 62% expressed support for such a peacekeeping operation [16], while in June 1996, a PIPA poll 57% expressed support for contributing US troops to such an operation. [17]



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Africa - August 2008 (PDF)