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January 22, 2005

Bush's Democracy Crusade Defies Public Opinion

by Jim Lobe

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 necessary."

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 in 2004.

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.


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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