Foreign Policy Not the Only Bush Fiasco
|April 4, 2006||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Foreign Policy Not the Only Bush Fiasco
Recent Polls Show U.S. Citizens Dissatisfied on Many Fronts
Here are portions of an article being distribution by our friends at evworld.com.
by Daniel Yankelovich
Terrorism and the war in Iraq are not the only sources of the American public’s anxiety about U.S. Foreign policy. Americans are also concerned about their country’s dependence on foreign energy supplies, U.S. jobs moving overseas, Washington’s seeming inability to stop illegal immigration, and a wide range of other issues. The public’s support for promoting democracy abroad has also seriously eroded.
These are a few of the highlights from the second in a continuing series of surveys monitoring Americans’ confidence in U.S. foreign policy conducted by the nonprofit research organization Public Agenda (with support from the Ford Foundation), of which I am chair. The first survey, conducted in June of last year, found that only the war in Iraq had reached the “tipping point” — the moment at which a large portion of the public begins to demand that the government address its concerns. According to this follow-on survey, conducted among a representative sample of 1,000 American adults in mid-January 2006, a second issue has reached that status. The U.S. public has grown impatient with U.S. dependence on foreign countries for oil, and its impatience could soon translate into a powerful demand that Washington change its policies.
Overall, the public’s confidence in U.S. Foreign policy has drifted downward since the first survey. On no issue did the government’s policy receive an improved rating from the public in January’s survey, and on a few the ratings changed for the worse. The public has become less confident in Washington’s ability to achieve its goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, hunt down terrorists, protect U.S. borders, and safeguard U.S. jobs. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they think that U.S. relations with the rest of the world are on the wrong track (compared to 37 percent who think the opposite), and 51 percent said they are disappointed by the country’s relations with other countries (compared to 42 percent who are proud of them).
As for the goal of spreading democracy to other countries, only 20 percent of respondents identified it as “very important” — the lowest support noted for any goal asked about in the survey. Even among Republicans, only three out of ten favored pursuing it strongly. In fact, most of the erosion in confidence in the policy of spreading democracy abroad has occurred among Republicans, especially the more religious wing of the party. People who frequently attend religious services have been among the most ardent supporters of the government’s policies, but one of the recent survey’s most striking findings is that although these people continue to maintain a high level of trust in the president and his administration, their support for the government’s Iraq policy and for the policy of exporting democracy has cooled.
WHAT MATTERS, AND WHY
A question always hovers in the background whenever public attitudes on foreign policy are reported: What influence do shifts in such attitudes have on the actual day-to-day conduct of foreign policy? Unlike for domestic policy, where it is clear that public opinion is always relevant, for foreign policy it is often difficult to understand whether changes in public opinion lead to changes on the ground.
The reason for this murkiness is that the public grants the president and Congress far more authority for decision-making on foreign policy than on domestic affairs. Americans assume that the president and his advisers have special information about international relations to which they are not privy. Some Americans may also lack confidence in their ability to judge the wisdom of particular foreign policies. All of this translates into a good deal of leeway for policymakers. Still, the public puts limits on this freedom and sometimes takes it away abruptly. Under certain conditions, public opinion can have a decisive influence. The trick is understanding what those conditions are.
In mid-2005, we found that in addition to the war in Iraq, three other issues were moving toward the tipping point, where public opinion would become strong enough to influence policy. These issues were the outsourcing of jobs to other countries, illegal immigration, and the United States’ deteriorating relations with the Muslim world. Based on the January survey, concern over outsourcing and illegal immigration has grown a bit more intense, and the worry about the growing hatred of the United States in Muslim countries has modestly receded. On the other hand, U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources, which was not an urgent issue in mid-2005, has leapt to the forefront of the public’s consciousness.
In studies that track attitudes, there are always more views that do not change than views that do. This survey is no exception. It is a striking — and encouraging — illustration of the public’s thoughtfulness and consistency. Respondents still awarded the government high marks (an A or a B) on its performance in achieving foreign policy goals such as helping other nations when natural disasters strike and making sure the United States has a strong and well-supplied military. Respondents continued to believe that the government deserves intermediate ratings on its efforts to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and help improve the lives of people in the developing world. And respondents still gave the government failing grades on issues such as stopping the importation of illegal drugs. This context of overall stability makes any changes in opinion that the survey did find all the more striking and significant.
The war in Iraq, already at the tipping point in mid-2005, remains the primary foreign policy issue on which public pressure continues to mount. Although illegal immigration and outsourcing moved closer to the tipping point in the January 2006 poll, neither has actually reached it. In contrast, the public’s concern over U.S. relations with the Muslim world moved slightly away from the tipping point. And the issue of energy dependence, which had ranked far down the list, leapfrogged ahead to move into tipping-point territory.
No change is more striking than that relating to the public’s opinion of U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Americans have grown much more worried that problems abroad may affect the price of oil. The proportion of those who said they “worry a lot” about this occurring has increased from 42 percent to 55 percent. Nearly nine out of ten Americans asked were worried about the problem — putting oil dependence at the top of our 18-issue “worry scale.” Virtually all Americans surveyed (90 percent) said they see the United States’ lack of energy independence as jeopardizing the country’s security, 88 percent said they believe that problems abroad could endanger the United States’ supply of oil and so raise prices for U.S. consumers, and 85 percent said they believe that the U.S. government would be capable of doing something about the problem if it tried. This last belief may be the reason that only 20 percent of those surveyed gave the government an A or a B on this issue; three-quarters assigned the government’s performance a C, a D, or an F.
The oil-dependency issue now meets all the criteria for having reached the tipping point: an overwhelming majority expresses concern about the issue, the intensity of the public’s unease has reached significant levels, and the public believes the government is capable of addressing the issue far more effectively than it has until now. Should the price of gasoline drop over the coming months, this issue may temporarily lose some of its political weight. But with supplies of oil tight and geopolitical tensions high, public pressure is likely to grow.
The only other issue that has reached the tipping point is the war in Iraq. It continues to be the foreign policy issue foremost in the public’s mind, and respondents consistently deem the war (along with the threat of terrorism) to be the most important problem facing the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world. Concern about mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq is particularly widespread — 82 percent of respondents to the June 2005 survey said they cared deeply about the issue; in January 2006, 83 percent said they did. Although the level and intensity of concern about Iraq has remained fairly stable, the public’s appraisal of how well the United States is meeting its objectives there has eroded slightly. Last summer, 39 percent of respondents gave the government high marks on this issue; 33 percent did in January. The erosion, moreover, comes almost entirely from Republicans: 61 percent gave the government an A or a B on Iraq in the first survey, but only 53 percent did in the second. Confidence in U.S. policy on Iraq is also down significantly among those who regularly attend religious services, who also show rising levels of concern about casualties.
One reason for the downward trend is skepticism about how truthful Washington has been about the reasons for invading Iraq. Fifty percent of respondents said they feel that they were misled — the highest level of mistrust measured in the survey. Another source of skepticism may be more troublesome for the government: only 22 percent of Americans surveyed said they feel that their government has the ability to create a democracy in Iraq.
Daniel Yankelovich is Chair and Co-founder of the organizations Public Agenda, DYG, and Viewpoint Learning.
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