Poll Finds a Nation Chastened by War

Three years of the Bush administration’s "war on terrorism" appears to have reduced the appetite of the U.S. public and its leaders for unilateral military engagements, according to a major survey released Tuesday by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR).

Indeed, the survey, the latest in a quadrennial series going back to 1974, found that key national-security principles enunciated by President George W. Bush since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon are opposed by strong majorities of both the public and the elite.

While supporting the idea that Washington should take an active role in world affairs, more than three of every four members of the public reject the notion that the United States "has the responsibility to play the role of world policeman" and four of every five say Washington is currently playing that role "more than it should be."

In addition, overwhelming majorities of both the public and the elite said that the most important lesson of 9/11 is that the nation needs to "work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism" as opposed to "act more on its own."

Similar majorities of both the public and leaders rejected Bush’s notion of preemptive war. Only 17 percent of the public and 10 percent of leaders said that war was justifiable if the "other country is acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could be used against them at some point in the future."

Fifty-three percent of the public and 61 percent of leaders said that war would be justified only if there is "strong evidence" the country is in "imminent danger" of attack. For about 25 percent of both the public and the leaders, war would be justified only if the other country attacks first.

The CCFR survey, which because of its rich detail and consistency over the past 30 years is generally taken more seriously than others that are conducted more sporadically, queried nearly 1,200 randomly selected members of the public during the second week of July.

A second survey of 450 "leaders with foreign policy power, specialization, and expertise" – including U.S. lawmakers or their senior staff, university faculty, journalists, senior administration officials, religious leaders, business and labor executives, and heads of major foreign policy organizations or interest groups – posed the same questions to determine where there may be gaps between the views of the elite and the public at large.

The last CCFR survey was taken in 2002, and normally the next one would not be held until 2006. But the council decided to commission one for 2004, in part due to "the significant role foreign policy issues are playing in American political life and the 2004 presidential election," according to Marshall Bouton, CCFR’s president.

The council also collaborated with similar efforts by partner organizations in Mexico and South Korea, the conclusions of which will be released in the coming days.

While terrorism and other security threats still loom large in the public’s mind, according to this year’s survey, "there is a lowered sense of threat overall compared to 2002," when foreign policy concerns, particularly terrorism, topped the list of foreign-policy issues that most concerned the public.

"Protecting American jobs" was the most frequently cited goal of foreign policy in the 2004 poll (78 percent called it a "very important" goal), followed by preventing the spread of nuclear weapons (73 percent), and combating international terrorism (71 percent).

For the elite respondents, on the other hand, nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism topped the list, while protecting U.S. jobs ranked eighth out of 14 options.

As for "critical threats," three out of four public respondents chose international terrorism, but that was down 10 points from two years ago. Two of three chose WMD, but that was also down by about 17 points from 2002, and virtually all other threats cited in the survey declined substantially.

Thus, "Islamic fundamentalism," which was considered a "critical threat" by 61 percent of the public in 2002, was cited by only 38 percent this year, while the "development of China as a world power," cited by 51 percent in 2002, claimed only 33 percent in 2004.

While, for the public, foreign policy issues virtually across the board were seen as less important than in 2002, that was not true for the foreign-policy elite, which rated "combating world hunger," securing energy supplies, improving the global environment, and, most striking, improving the standard of living of less developed nations, significantly higher than two years ago.

In addition, 40 percent of the elite now consider "strengthening the United Nations" as a "very important goal" of U.S. foreign policy, up 12 percent from 2002. Conversely, the percentage of leaders who cited "maintaining superior power worldwide" as a very important goal, fell from 52 percent in 2002 to only 37 percent in 2004, the first time it has received less than majority support since the question was first asked in 1994.

A more chastened approach to foreign policy also showed up in declining support on the part of both the public and the elite for maintaining military bases abroad, particularly in hot spots like the Middle East and states linked to terrorist activities.

More than two-thirds of both the public and the leaders agreed the United States should withdraw from Iraq if a clear majority of Iraqi people want it to do so. As to whether Washington should remove its military presence from the Middle East if a majority of people there desire it, 59 percent of the public said yes, but only 35 percent of the elite agreed.

A majority of the public said Washington should not press Arab states to become more democratic; two-thirds said they opposed a Marshall-type Plan of economic aid and development for the region.

Large majorities of the public and the elite favor retaining traditional constraints on the use of force by individual states, including the United States, and oppose new ideas for making them looser, as often proposed by the Bush administration. At the same time, they favor giving wide-ranging powers to states acting collectively through the United Nations.

Thus, majorities of both the public and leaders oppose states taking unilateral action to prevent other states from acquiring WMD, but support such action if the UN Security Council approves. In the specific case of North Korea, for example, two-thirds of respondents said it should be necessary for Washington to get the council’s approval before taking military action.

A majority of the public opposes the United States or any other nation having veto power on the Security Council.

The survey also found strong support for U.S. participation in a wide range of international treaties and agreements, some of which have been rejected or renounced by the Bush administration.

Thus 87 percent of the public and 85 percent of the elite said they would favor the terms of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; 80 percent of both groups said they favored the landmine ban; 76 percent of the public and 70 percent of the elite said they support U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court; and 71 percent of both groups said they back U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming.

Two-thirds of the public and three-quarters of the elite agreed that, in dealing with international problems, Washington should be more willing to make decisions within the UN, even if this means that its views will not prevail.

Asked what specific steps should be taken for strengthening the world body, three-quarters of the public and two-thirds of leaders said the UN should have a standing peacekeeping force.

A majority of 57 percent of the public and a plurality of 48 percent of the elite said the United States should make a general commitment to abide by World Court decisions rather than decide on a case-by-case basis.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.