March 8, 2007

Foreign Policy: The Public Sends a Muddled Message

No Clear Directions for Policymakers

by Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center

Both the White House and Congress face difficult decisions with respect to foreign policy in the final two years of Bush’s term. Yet, the polls suggest that policymakers can expect little in the way of clear guidance from the public. Opinion surveys find much in the way of public frustration, but little in the way of direction on the international and military front.

Obviously, Iraq is the number one issue — almost the only foreign policy issue — on the public’s radar. And the message from the latest major public opinion polls seems loud and clear: Let’s get out ASAP. But, beyond that basic expression of disillusionment, there’s not much consensus about how to get out or when. Certainly, one finds no clear directive for policy makers in either party. Some examples:

Item: Troop Withdrawals – Pew’s latest poll finds a 53%-majority of the public now thinks that the United States should bring its troops home “as soon as possible.” Okay, but how soon is “possible”?

FigureQuestioned further, this group favoring expeditious troop withdrawal from Iraq appears to be far from committed to an immediate retreat. By more than two-to-one (35% to 16%) they opt for a gradual withdrawal “over the next year or two,” rather than removing all troops immediately.

But that still substantial minority of Americans who opt to stay the course until the situation in Iraq has stabilized are similarly ambivalent. Among this group, four-in-ten in Pew’s January poll favored setting a timetable for when troops will be withdrawn.

Item: The Troop ‘Surge’ – In January, shortly after the president announced his plan to deploy 21,000 more U.S. troops in Iraq, our poll found the public opposed to the plan, but also opposed to attempts by Congress to withhold funding to support the deployments. The public splintered with 31% supporting the surge, 18% opposing but not in favor of withholding the funding, and 43% against it all the way.

FigureItem: The Partisan Gap – Although optimism about a positive outcome in Iraq is sinking rapidly among the public at large, no bi-partisan consensus prevails on the war as did during the dark days of Vietnam. True, far fewer Republicans now see things going at least fairly well in Iraq than did a year ago (a bare 51% majority said so last month down 26 points from a year earlier). But that is still a far higher percentage than the 15% of Democrats and 26% of independents who share that optimistic view.

Even more striking is the partisan difference in prospects for ultimate success in the military effort. In Pew’s February poll, more than three-quarters (77%) of Republicans continue to believe that the U.S. has at least some chance of achieving its goals in Iraq. By contrast, only 34% of Democrats and 40% of independents shared that view.

Looking at foreign policy more generally, the public’s loss of confidence in President Bush has implications for a broader set of problems beyond Iraq. To begin with, lack of trust in President Bush is affecting how the public looks at other foreign threats:

Item: Iran – A telling question in last week’s ABC/Washington Post poll found 63% of the public saying it cannot “trust” the Bush administration to report honestly about intelligence and possible threats from other countries.

That credibility concern may help to explain another anomaly found in the polls. On the one hand, Americans express considerable concern that Iran may pose a threat to the United States. But on the other, the public is sharply divided over whether it is important to take a firm stand against Iranian policies. In Pew’s latest survey, the public splits evenly on whether it is more important for the United States to take a firm stand against Iranian actions or to avoid a military conflict with Iran.

Whatever its doubts about the Bush administration, the public appears to have little confidence in Congress’s ability to deal with the Iraq situation. While only 21% of respondents in Pew’s February survey said they believed that Bush has a clear plan for a successful conclusion to the Iraq situation, essentially the same small number (20%) think Democratic leaders in Congress have a clear plan for dealing with Iraq. In itself, that may not seem surprising; but it is certainly somewhat puzzling in the light of the finding in recent polls that, by lopsided margins, the public wants the Democrats in Congress, not Bush, to take the lead in setting Iraq policy. (An NBC poll in January found the public opting for Congressional Democrats over Bush by a 55%-32% margin, a month later an ABC/Washington Post poll found essentially the same result.) So while Americans are equally skeptical about both, they still want the Democrats in charge.

One aspect of the public’s attitudes toward Congress is far less ambiguous: Americans want their representatives to focus on domestic rather than foreign policy issues. By a margin of 51%-to-32%, Pew’s January poll found people saying that right now it is more important for Democratic leaders in Congress to focus on domestic rather than foreign policy.

It is possible that this preference reflects not only an increased concern about domestic issues, but also a rise in isolationist sentiment among the American public that we have observed in surveys over the past two years.

FigureItem: Isolationism – American willingness to involve the country in world affairs rose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In December 2002, just 30% of the public expressed the view that the United States should “mind its own business internationally.” Since then, isolationist sentiment has risen substantially reaching levels last seen during the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War, and in the mid-1990s after the Cold War ended. In a November 2005 Pew/Council on Foreign Relations survey, about 42% of the U.S. public ascribed to the “mind its own business” view – a percentage that remained unchanged a year later in Pew’s December 2006 poll.

This “stay out of it” sentiment was much in evidence last summer, when CBS polls in both July and August showed the public saying that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to resolve the conflict between Israel and other countries in the Middle East during the Hezbollah war and a Pew poll found only 15% saying the U.S. should be more involved in resolving the conflict. That response might well have been very different if the climate of opinion had been as it was a few years ago, when the public voiced more internationalist sentiments following the 9-11 attacks.

Obviously the message here is that – given the quandary about Iraq and the general disillusionment about America’s place in the world these days — the public will not be pointing the way for its leaders on foreign policy issues. Instead it will be looking for convincing leadership from its elected and would-be elected representatives in whom, at the moment, it places little confidence.

See also:

War Support Slips, Fewer Expect a Successful Outcome

Broad Opposition to Bush’s Iraq Plan

Free Trade Agreements Get a Mixed Review

Opinion Leaders Turn Cautious, Public Looks Homeward

Public More Internationalist than in 1990s