Public Anxiety Over Foreign Policy Nears ‘Crisis’

Increasingly anxious about the course of U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush, particularly in Iraq, the country appears to be moving toward a "full-blown crisis of public confidence," according to the latest "Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy" survey designed by veteran pollster Daniel Yankelovich released here Tuesday.

Among other findings, the survey, the fourth in a semiannual series by the New York-based Public Agenda and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), found that nearly six in 10 respondents doubt the government is being honest with them about foreign policy – a 10-point increase from just six months ago.

It also found a sharp rise – from 58 percent to 67 percent of respondents – in the belief that U.S. foreign policy is "on the wrong track" and a similar increase in the percentage who "worry a lot" that the war in Iraq is leading to too many casualties.

The survey, conducted in late February and early March, also found a spectacular decline in confidence in the utility of military force to solve foreign policy challenges, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or terrorism.

A 43-percent plurality of respondents, for example, said that attacking countries that develop WMD would enhance national security "not at all" – a 14-point jump in six months – while those who said it would enhance security "a great deal" dropped from 36 percent to 17 percent over the same period.

In dealing with Iran, in particular, 44 percent of respondents said they preferred diplomacy to establish better relations, while 28 percent opted for using economic sanctions. A mere 13 percent said Washington should either threaten (eight percent) or actually take (five percent) military actions against Tehran, while 11 percent said they thought there was no need to do anything.

"Military options are off the table," said ret. Adm. Bobby Inman, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who serves on Public Agenda’s board of directors. "It’s pretty striking (and) probably a reflection of overall dissatisfaction that the military option was the prime option in Iraq."

The latest edition of the CFPI, which is published by CFR’s Foreign Affairs magazine, queried 1,013 randomly selected adults who were broadly representative of the national population in terms of such variables as age, region, political affiliation, education, income, race, and religion.

The Index features what it calls a "Foreign Policy Anxiety Indicator" based on respondents’ answers to five key questions, including whether the world is becoming more or less dangerous to the U.S. and how the rest of the world sees the U.S.

The indicator also asks how worried respondents are about the way things are going for the U.S. in the world; how successful the U.S. is as a leader working toward a more peaceful and prosperous world; and whether they believe U.S. relations with the rest of the world are on the right or wrong track.

On a scale of 0 to 200, where 0 connotes complete confidence and 200 panic, the findings six months ago fixed the indicator at 130. At that time, Yankelovich had said that public dissatisfaction with Bush’s performance in Iraq had reached a "tipping point" that signaled major political consequences. Indeed, in November’s mid-term elections just a few weeks later, Democrats ousted Republicans from power in both houses of Congress.

According to the latest survey, however, the indicator has risen to 137. The increase reflected primarily the sharp rise in the number of respondents who said foreign policy is on the "wrong track" and more modest increases in those who rated Washington’s contribution to a more peaceful and prosperous world either "fair" or "poor" (73 percent) and who described the world as becoming "more dangerous" (82 percent).

"The Anxiety Indicator is moving closer to the 150 mark, the ‘red zone’ that to me would signal a full-blown crisis of public confidence," Yankelovich said Tuesday, adding that the growing public anxiety over foreign policy is by no means confined to Iraq.

Yankelovich, who chairs Public Agenda, said unhappiness with current foreign policy is so pervasive on so many different issues that "it’s almost as if the public is shaping its own foreign policy in opposition to official foreign policy."

Seven main elements of such an alternative foreign policy could be extracted from the survey’s findings, he added.

First, the public, he said, clearly wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq short of achieving "victory" there. A total of 70 percent of respondents wanted to see the U.S. withdraw within the next 12 months, while only 27 percent favored remaining there as long as it takes to stabilize the situation, according to the survey.

Second, two-thirds of the public believe the U.S. should put greater emphasis on diplomatic and economic efforts over military efforts in pursuing its interests, particular in fighting terrorism, than it has in the past, according to the survey. Seven in 10 respondents said that the criticism that Washington has been too quick to resort to military force is at least "partly justified", while 84 percent said "initiating military force only when we have the support of our allies" was either "important" or "very important to our foreign policy.

Third, the public believes that the U.S. must do more to restore "its reputation and credibility with the rest of the world", Yankelovich said, adding that 91 percent of respondents said the image of the U.S. is critical to its national security.

Fourth, the public has become very skeptical of Washington’s efforts to impose democracy on other nations. Three out of four respondents said it was something that other countries can only do on their own – a 20-point increase since the CFPI first asked the question in mid-2005. Only 23 percent said they believed the U.S. "can help other countries become democracies" – down from 38 percent in mid-2005.

Fifth, the U.S. should give top priority to stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Three out of four respondents said they considered that objective to be "very important" – the highest in a list of a dozen policy initiatives.

All of these elements – particularly the souring on the use of military force – are likely to endure beyond the Bush administration, suggested Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs. "It may well constrain not just Bush, but also future administrations for some time," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.