President George W. Bush faces
a difficult challenge in rallying U.S. public opinion behind his clarion call
for spreading freedom and democracy abroad, according to a number of surveys
published over the last two years.
Those polls show that the general public is, if anything, less inclined to
engage in a global crusade on behalf of democracy particularly if it is undertaken
unilaterally and militarily as in Iraq than it was even
two years ago.
Indeed, one poll taken just last month found that only seven percent of respondents
believe the primary focus of U.S. foreign and security policy should be on "building
democracies in other regions," as opposed to what they considered substantially
greater priorities, such as "defending U.S. borders and homeland security,"
and strengthening alliances with other nations against a common threat.
"The Iraq experience clearly has been a sobering one for Americans,"
said Pam Solo, president of the Massachusetts-based Civil Society Institute
(CSI), which commissioned the poll of some 2,100 voters.
"Voters are embracing a 'new realism' in foreign policy and security matters
that puts more emphasis on safer U.S. borders, intelligence gathering, diplomatic
initiatives, multi-national interventions when necessary, and greater energy
efficiency in order to decrease America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil."
In his inaugural speech Thursday, Bush stressed in no uncertain terms that
the major policy priority of his second term in office will be to "seek
and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation
and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
He also made clear that he saw the export and promotion of democracy and freedom
abroad as integral to the country's defense and security. Recalling what he
called "a day of fire" the September 11, 2001, attack on New York
and the Pentagon by radical Islamists he insisted that it
led "to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly
depends on the success of liberty in other lands."
"The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all
the world," he declared, adding that, while "America's influence is
not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable,
and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause."
He also stressed that ending tyranny will not be "primarily the task of
arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when
Indeed, polls taken over the past three years suggest that public support for
exporting democracy overseas particularly through military means was never
particularly high in the U.S. and, has actually diminished, probably as a result
of setbacks in Iraq.
Last July, for example, a poll carried out by the Pew Research Center for the
People & and the Press asked respondents to choose their "top priorities"
among 19 foreign policy issues. Of the 19, "promot(ing) democracy abroad"
rated 18, just ahead of "improving living standards in poor nations."
The democracy option actually rated higher when Pew asked the same question
just before the September 11 attacks. But, while 29 percent of respondents rated
it as a "top priority" then, only 24 percent rated it the same way
The results of a more-comprehensive foreign policy survey taken at the same
time the latest in a series produced periodically by the Chicago Council on
Foreign Relations (CCFR) since the 1970s reached a similar conclusion.
"Helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations"
rated dead last out of 14 "foreign policy goals" that it listed for
respondents. It was far below even middle-ranking goals, such as "improving
the global environment" or "strengthening the United Nations."
In fact, the importance of democracy promotion, according to the CCFR survey's
analysts, fell to its lowest relative level in almost three decades when the
poll was taken in May and June 2004.
A bare majority of 53 percent of the same respondents, however, said they favored
using foreign aid to promote democracy abroad, against 40 percent who opposed
it. Nonetheless, that 53 percent also marked a substantial decline from the
69 percent who said they supported using foreign aid to promote democracy when
the same question was asked in 2002 before the Iraq invasion.
Opposition to using the U.S. military to promote democracy was even stronger
among respondents. When asked whether U.S. troops should be used to install
democratic governments in states ruled by dictators, 63 percent of the CCFR
respondents opposed the idea, while only 30 percent favored it.
The same poll found that Americans do not favor even rather mild democratization
efforts in the Middle East. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said the U.S.
should not put "greater pressure" on countries in the Middle East
to become more democratic. More than two thirds of respondents oppose the expenditure
of billions of dollars "to reconstruct and democratize" the Middle
East, as Washington did in Europe after World War II.
In yet another poll, by the University of Maryland's Program on International
Policy Attitudes (PIPA), taken in November 2003 eight months after the Iraq
invasion respondents were asked whether they agreed "the U.S. has the
right and even the responsibility to overthrow dictatorships and help their
people build a democracy." The results were remarkably consistent with
the later CCFR findings: Thirty-four percent said Washington should indeed do
so, while a solid 59 percent majority said it had no such right or responsibility.
The same PIPA poll also asked which was the higher priority for the U.S.
capturing Osama bin Laden and breaking up al-Qaeda or capturing former Iraqi
President Saddam Hussein and "establish(ing) a democracy in Iraq."
Three out of four respondents said bin Laden and al-Qaeda were more important,
while only one in five opted for Iraqi democracy.
It also asked respondents whether the U.S. was doing too much, too little,
or enough to promote democracy in the Middle East. Nearly half said enough,
while 10 percent said it was doing too much, and only eight percent said it
should do more.