Public Skeptical About Bush’s Democracy Crusade

The U.S. public is deeply skeptical about the priority President George W. Bush has put on promoting democracy abroad, and its experience in Iraq has made it more so, according to a detailed new survey [.pdf] released Thursday by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland.

Only 35 percent of the 808 randomly selected respondents said they favored the use of military force to overthrow dictators, and 74 percent, including 60 percent of self-identified Republicans, said the goal of overthrowing the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and installing democracy there was not a good enough reason for going to war.

Bush’s main prewar justifications – the alleged connection between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and his efforts to obtain nuclear weapons – were later shown to be unfounded. The U.S. president has since insisted that the war on terror can only be won through the spread of democracy, particularly in the Middle East. Indeed, his Second Inaugural Address last January was devoted to this theme. "We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," he declared. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.." But "most Americans do not appear to have been persuaded by President Bush’s argument that promoting democracy is a critical means for fighting terrorism and making the world safer," said Steven Kull, who, as PIPA’s director, helped design the survey.

While Republicans appeared to be somewhat more inclined to accept Bush’s views, according to the survey results, significant majorities of the public as a whole were far more skeptical, particularly with respect to the use of armed or coercive means to bring democratic change abroad.

Fifty-five percent said they opposed using military force to "overthrow a dictator," compared to the 35 percent (including 52 percent of Republicans) who supported the idea. Moreover, a two-thirds majority said that threatening military intervention to bring about democratic change "does more harm than good," compared to 21 percent who took the opposite view.

On Iraq, three of every four respondents, including 60 percent of Republicans, said the goal of overthrowing Hussein and establishing a democracy in Iraq was not by itself a good enough reason to go to war. Seventy-two percent said that the experience in Iraq had made them feel "worse," rather than "better," about the possibility of using military force to bring about democratic change in the future.

That was true of a majority of Republicans (57 percent), as well as Democrats (88 percent).

The administration’s confidence about the benefits of spreading democracy is not shared by the general public, according to the survey. Only 26 percent of respondents agreed with the proposition that more democracies would make the world safer, while 68 percent said that was not necessarily true.

Moreover, 63 percent of Republicans agreed with the notion that "democracy may make life better within a country, but it does not make the world a safer place."

The public split evenly on the question of whether democracies would reduce support for terrorist groups, with a slight majority of Republicans agreeing with the statement. As for another administration argument that democracies are less likely to go to war with one another, a plurality of 49 percent disagreed, saying that democracies were just as likely to go war as authoritarian governments.

Moreover, the public is not persuaded that democratization will lead countries to become more friendly to the U.S. Only 42 percent agreed with that general proposition, and only 26 percent said Saudi Arabia, as a specific example, would be friendlier if it had a democratic government.

Some of this skepticism appeared to be based on doubts whether all countries were ready for democracy. While nearly 80 percent of respondents said democracy was the best form of government, only 50 percent said it was best for all countries.

At the same time, only a third of respondents said "democracy and Islam are incompatible," while 55 percent agreed that "it is possible for Islamic countries to be democratic."

Fifty-four percent said the U.S. should not press for greater democracy if there was a significant likelihood that elections would lead to an Islamic fundamentalist government.

The public generally support promoting democracy as a foreign policy goals, but only 27 percent said they considered it a "very important" goal, compared to 49 percent who called it "somewhat important" and 19 percent who said it was "not important."

Nearly 40 percent said that U.S. foreign policy as a rule should encourage governments to be more democratic, 54 percent said it "should pursue U.S. interests, which sometimes means promoting democracy and sometimes means supporting non-democratic governments."

"While Americans generally support the goal of promoting democracy, they take the pragmatic approach of not making it a top priority in all cases," said Christopher Whitney, director of studies at CCFR, which has conducted the most comprehensive polls of U.S. foreign policy attitudes every four years since the mid-1970s.

At the same time, when asked whether the U.S. should spend money to try to influence elections in its interest, 75 percent disagreed (Republicans 69 percent, Democrats 83 percent), and only 20 percent said it should.

In promoting democracy, the public clearly favored carrots, such as providing additional aid and other support, for governments that implemented reforms over sticks, from economic sanctions to military intervention, against governments that refused to do so.

It also found a large majority (68 percent) who favored working through the United Nations "because such efforts will be seen as more legitimate" over unilateral action to support democratic change by the U.S. "because (it) can act more decisively and effectively" (25 percent).

In contrast to the greater skepticism the public feels about pressuring countries to be more democratic, large majorities were found to favor using diplomatic pressure on governments to respect "human rights," including speaking out publicly against abuses and pressing other countries to do the same.

Asked for example, whether the U.S. should have called for an international investigation of a May massacre of several hundred demonstrators by government forces in Uzbekistan at the risk of losing access to an airbase there, nearly three-quarters agreed.

Kull and Whitney said some of the reservations the public appears to have about pressing other countries to become more democratic may actually derive from a lack of confidence that the U.S. itself is an ideal democracy.

Asked to rate on a scale of zero to 10 "how democratic" the U.S. government was, with 10 meaning "completely democratic," the mean response was only 6.2, the same as Sweden and lower than ratings for Canada (7.1) and Britain (6.8).

Asked how much impact the views of the majority of citizens have on the decisions of elected officials in Washington on a 0-10 scale, the mean response was only 4.5. That contrasted sharply with the mean response of 8.0 given by respondents when asked how much the views of the majority should influence Washington policymakers.

The poll, which was fielded by Knowledge Networks, was conducted Sept. 15-21.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.