By William Fisher
Only 20 per cent of Americans thinks President George W. Bush's goal of spreading democracy to other countries is "very important". And even among Republicans, only three out of ten favor pursuing this goal "strongly", with most of the erosion in Republican confidence occurring in the more religious wing of the party.
These are some of the highlights of the second in a continuing series of
surveys monitoring Americans' confidence in U.S. foreign policy conducted by the nonprofit research organization Public Agenda. The survey results were described in an article in the journal "Foreign Affairs" by the organization's chairman, opinion research guru Daniel Yankelovich.
The first survey, conducted in June of last year, found that the war in Iraq had reached a "tipping point" - which the survey defines as the moment at which a large portion of the public begins to demand that the government address its concerns.
The 2006 survey found that public confidence in U.S. foreign policy has declined
since then. The public has become less confident in Washington's
ability to achieve its goals in Iraq and Afghanistan and hunt down terrorists.
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), the survey reported.
Yankelovich reported that the war in Iraq continues to be the foreign policy issue foremost in the public's mind, and respondents consistently say that the war, along with the threat of terrorism, are the most important problems facing the U.S. 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.
Yankelovich says one reason for the downward trend is skepticism about how truthful Washington has been about the reasons for invading Iraq. He notes that 50 percent of respondents said they feel 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.
Foreign policy observers we contacted found few surprises in the survey.
Brian J. Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, told us, "The American public is, finally, coming around to realizing that the so-called mission of spreading democracy abroad requires the destruction of democracy here at home. War results in increased secrecy, growth of big government and its control, and an erosion of civil liberties. Here we're getting that, and an enormous government budget deficit, and a reduction in public services, to boot."
Samer Shehata, Professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, worries that the survey results indicate that the U.S. will be pressured to "withdraw from Iraq quickly and - most likely - without sufficient planning and preparation for the consequences." He told us,"Rather than working early to 'internationalize' the occupation and rebuilding, the Bush administration has been unwilling to let other countries - including the UN, the EU, NATO and neighboring Arab and Muslim countries - play a part in Iraq and therefore become vested in Iraq's stability and reconstruction. The US now faces no good options. Withdrawing quickly will likely lead to the worsening of the situation while the US continued presence does not seem to be - even gradually - producing stability."
And Patricia Kushlis, a veteran of the U.S. Information Service, said she finds it "particularly interesting to see that 70 percent of the administration's stalwart supporters - and especially the religious right - now realize that exporting democracy is an impracticable objective". She told us, "This sea change in U.S. public opinion could well impact the outcome of the November midterm elections and send the Republican-majority Congress packing".
But Edward Herman, professor emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania, questioned not the survey's findings, but its basic premise. He told us "One problem with all these opinion surveys is that they never question that the goal of the Bush Administration is democracy -- which I believe to be a complete fraud."
"In some cases the Bushies, like earlier leaders, would like to see a democratic façade, but never real democracy, which, in say Iraq, would see the U.S. and its military bases thrown out on their ear," he said.
On the issue of U.S. relations with the rest of the world, only about a third of Americans surveyed (35 percent) said they think the U.S. government could do a lot to establish good relations with moderate Muslims -- but almost two-thirds (64 percent) nevertheless gave the government poor marks because of its failure to do so.
Nearly a third of respondents said they "worry a lot" about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world (31 percent) and the possibility that U.S. actions in the Middle East have aided the recruitment of terrorists (33 percent).
Almost half (45 percent) said they believe that Islam encourages violence, and survey respondents estimated that about half or more of all Muslims in the world are anti-American. But a clear majority (56 percent) continued to have confidence that improved communications with the Muslim world would reduce hatred of the United States.
But Yankelovich reports that Americans may also be getting used to the notion that they are not well loved abroad. A majority of respondents (65 percent) realize that the rest of the world sees the United States in a negative light.
While the Americans surveyed have fairly clear ideas about U.S. foreign policy priorities, U.S. political parties differ on the desirability of promoting democracy in other countries (30 percent of Republicans surveyed supported this goal, compared to only 16 percent of Democrats). But even a majority of Republicans have little stomach for this priority of the Bush administration, the survey found.
A majority of the U.S. public supports the ideal of spreading democracy (53 percent of respondents said they believe that "when more countries become democratic there will be less conflict"), but Americans remain skeptical that an "activist" U.S. policy can contribute much to this outcome. A majority of those surveyed (58 percent) said they feel "democracy is something that countries only come to on their own."
The survey results bear an eerie similarity to those that were reported during the mid to later stages of the Vietnam War. It was the gathering antiwar mood of the American public that finally made that adventure unsustainable. And many are predicting that U.S. intervention in Iraq will suffer a similar ignominious end.