Economy High in US Public’s Foreign Policy Worries

The price of oil and other international economic issues are rapidly taking center stage among the dominant foreign policy concerns of the US public, which has also become increasingly skeptical about the effectiveness of military action to further Washington’s interests abroad, according to a major new survey released Wednesday by the influential Foreign Affairs journal.

While a plurality of 29 percent of respondents, when asked to identify the top foreign policy problem faced by the US, named the five-year-old Iraq war last October, only 19 percent did so late last month when the latest edition of semiannual "Confidence in US Foreign Policy Index" was carried out.

Over the same six-month period, the number of respondents who named the economy as the top foreign policy challenge rose from a mere three percent to 11 percent, edging out "terrorism" for second place, according to the survey, a project overseen by the nonpartisan"Public Agenda" since the Index’s inception in 2005.

Moreover, seven out of 10 respondents said they worried "a lot" about the rise in energy costs, a 16-point jump from last October that eclipsed the 56 percent who said they worried "a lot" about the impact of the Iraq war.

The number of those who worry "a lot" the US may owe too much money to foreign countries also jumped sharply over the last six months, from 31 percent to 40 percent, highlighting the degree to which economic concerns have risen to the top of the public agenda in the run-up to November’s national elections.

At the same time, the latest survey showed a marked increase in the gap between the percentage of respondents who believe the US government should put more emphasis on diplomatic and economic foreign policy tools in fighting terrorism and those who believe that it should put more emphasis on "military efforts."

In the latest survey, 69 percent of respondents chose the first option, compared to only 23 percent who chose the latter. Just six months ago, the gap was 65-28 percent.

"If you look broadly across the Index, there’s not much public support for the use of military force on any issue," noted ret. Adm. Bob Inman, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who serves on Public Agenda’s board of directors.

In that respect, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who has taken markedly more hawkish positions on the Middle East, Russia, and China than either of the two remaining Democratic candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, could be particularly vulnerable in the upcoming elections, according to Daniel Yankelovich, a veteran pollster who chairs Public Agenda.

"I think the candidates’ positions on foreign policy haven’t communicated yet throughout the electorate," Yankelovich said. "When they do… the hawkishness of McCain will work against him (so long as) the Democrats find a way of countering his position."

Indeed, a large plurality of 47 percent of respondents said that Washington should use diplomacy to try establish better relations with Iran – up from 35 percent six months ago – while 28 percent said it should seek the imposition of international economic sanctions to press Iran to freeze its nuclear program, and another 11 percent said the US need not do anything at all.

By contrast, only 12 percent of respondents said the US should either threaten or actually take military action against Tehran, down from 19 percent of respondents who took that position just six months ago.

In addition, seven out of 10 respondents agreed with the assertion that "to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US and Israel will have to work with unfriendly countries in the Middle East, such as Syria."

The Index, the latest edition of which addressed some 110 foreign policy-related questions to more than 1,000 adults, has sought, among other things, to identify what foreign policy issues provoke the most concern in the general public and whether that concern has reached a "tipping point" that could result in major political consequences.

In the October 2006 survey, Yankelovich found that public dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush’s performance in Iraq had reached such a "tipping point." The mid-term elections the following month, in which Democrats won control of both houses of Congress, appeared to bear out his thesis.

In the latest survey, Yankelovich said the issue of oil prices and uncertainty about future energy sources appears to be reaching such a point, outpacing any other concern by a wide margin.

Not only did seven in 10 respondents say they worry "a lot" about energy costs, but six in 10 said that reducing energy dependence on foreign oil would strengthen US national security "a great deal," the highest percentage since the Index was launched. Only 19 percent of respondents gave the Bush administration grades of A or B in addressing the problem, while 53 percent rated its performance as D or worse.

"The public’s concerns about energy policy aren’t limited to rising gas prices," said Yankelovich. "Americans are connecting energy policy to national security issues in ways that they didn’t just a few years ago." Moreover, he noted, 39 percent of respondents said they worry "a lot" about global warming, up from 32 percent two years ago.

The decline in the percentage of respondents who worry "a lot" about the Iraq war may be due more to the relative decline in news coverage of the war over the last six months, particularly as higher energy prices and other negative economic developments have displaced it in the headlines, according to both Inman and Yankelovich. "The press is not covering it as much as before, but the basic attitude (toward the war) is the same," said Yankelovich.

Indeed, 65 percent of respondents said they believe the US should withdraw all its troops from Iraq either "immediately" (21 percent) or over the next 12 months (44 percent), compared to 67 percent (19 percent and 48 percent), respectively, six months ago.

Overall, the public is slightly less anxious about foreign policy than it was a year ago when the Index’s ‘Anxiety Indicator’ reached a record high of 137 out of a possible 200.

The Indicator, which is based on answers to five key questions, now stands at 132 – the composite score of the 84 percent of respondents who said they are worried about the way things are going for the US in world affairs; the 74 percent who believe that the world is "becoming more dangerous" for the country; the 69 percent who believe the US is not doing a "good job as a leader in creating a more peaceful and prosperous world"; the 64 percent who believe the rest of the world has a negative impression of the US; and the 65 percent who believe US relations with the rest of the world are on the "wrong track."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.