The war in Iraq and other foreign affairs are more important to voters in the coming presidential election than the economy, marking the first time since the Vietnam era that U.S. citizens are putting more weight on foreign policy than domestic concerns, according to a poll released Wednesday.
Forty-one percent of voting-age adults rated "war, foreign policy and terrorism" the most important problems facing the nation, concluded the survey released by the Pew Research Center (PRC) in association with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an established, Washington-based think tank.
Economic issues topped the concerns of 26 percent of respondents while the same number chose "other domestic issues," added the survey.
"The Sept. 11 attacks and the two wars that followed not only have raised the stakes for voters as they consider their choice for president, but also have created deep divisions and conflicting sentiments over U.S. foreign policy in a troubled time," said a PRC statement.
The poll found that nearly as many respondents favored a "decisive foreign policy" (62 percent) as supported a cautious approach (66 percent).
And reflecting a growing partisan gap on foreign policy sentiment, Republican voters, from the party of President George W. Bush, assign higher priority to decisiveness than to caution, while Democrats do the opposite.
The survey was conducted July 8-18 among 2,009 adults across the United States.
A narrow majority of respondents, 53 percent, still believe it was the "right decision" to use military force in Iraq, but the number has dropped from the 74 percent who held that view after the U.S.-led attack in March 2003.
In a related field, 52 percent of respondents said they disapproved with how the Bush administration has handled the situation in Iraq, while 43 percent continue to approve of its actions there.
In a follow-up poll conducted Aug. 5-10 among 1,512 adults, the PRC found that, more than a month after the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, 58 percent of respondents said Bush does not have a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion.
Presumably in response to the ongoing quagmire in Iraq, a solid 59 percent of respondents, in the July foreign policy survey, faulted the administration for being too quick to use force as a foreign policy tool rather than trying to reach diplomatic solutions.
Since May 2003 the number of respondents who "sometimes" support preemptive military action had sunk from 45 percent to 40 percent, the survey found.
Bush and his main ally, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, launched the attack on Iraq without the support of many of their traditional allies, alleging that the weapons of mass destruction of former President Saddam Hussein constituted a grave threat. Those weapons have yet to be found.
In the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, public sympathies still lie predominantly with Israel, by a margin of 40 percent to 13 percent, but there has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of Americans who regard U.S. policies in the Middle East as "fair" 35 percent, down from 47 percent in May 2003.
The poll found respondents clearly aware of the loss of respect for the United States internationally as a result of recent foreign policy decisions, with two-thirds saying the country is less respected by other countries than in the past.
"The fact that two-thirds of U.S. citizens say the U.S. is less respected in the world is highly significant," said PRC Editor Carroll Doherty in an interview with IPS.
Not surprisingly, 87 percent of those who thought the war in Iraq was the wrong decision believed the nation is less respected internationally.
"The fact that respondents say the U.S. is less respected echoes some of the things [Democratic presidential challenger John] Kerry has said on the campaign trail," said Doherty.
However, heightened awareness of the threat of terrorism resulted in 88 percent of respondents rating "taking measures to protect the United States from terrorist attacks" as a "top foreign policy priority."
The polls results do not significantly bolster either presidential contender, Kerry or Bush. "It’s a mixed message for both of them," said Doherty.
Forty-nine percent of those polled supported taking into account the interests of U.S. allies when making foreign policy decisions while only 37 percent believed decisions should be based mostly on the national interest of the United States.
"They [the U.S. public] want policy more predicated on allied interests," according to Doherty. "[The United States public] see allies as being important, but that doesn’t mean the public is willing to abandon tough measures in the war on terror," he added.
In terms of domestic security and civil liberties, respondents by a significant margin, 49 percent to 29 percent, were concerned that the government had not gone far enough to protect the country rather than that the government had gone too far in restricting civil liberties.
Although investigations into torture and other human rights abuses by U.S. military personnel against prisoners in the administration’s "war on terrorism" continue, 53 percent of those polled believed torture should rarely or never be used to gain important information from suspected terrorists while a large minority, 43 percent, said torture can, at least sometimes, be justified.
Republicans and Democrats were shown to hold sharply divergent views on foreign policy and the "war on terror."
Fifty-one percent of Democrats believed U.S. wrongdoing in dealing with other countries might have motivated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks while a majority, 76 percent, of Republicans rejected that notion.
Eighty percent of Democrats believed the United States is less respected by other countries than in the past while only 47 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement.
When asked to rank national priorities, Democrats placed creating and protecting jobs in the United States as their highest priority, followed by combating terrorism and slowing the spread of AIDS.
Republicans made fighting terrorism the highest priority, followed by preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and creating and protecting U.S. jobs.
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