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March 31, 2006

Public Continues to Sour on Bush's Crusade

by Jim Lobe

The vast majority of the U.S. public appears to have grown thoroughly disillusioned with President George W. Bush's crusade to spread democracy abroad, according to a new survey by one of the country's premier public opinion analysts.

The survey, designed by Daniel Yankelovich, also found that public concern about U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources has skyrocketed in recent months, and has now joined Iraq as the kind of foreign policy issue that can do serious harm to politicians if they are seen as failing to respond effectively to the problem.

"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," wrote Yankelovich in an analysis of the survey results in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs released here Thursday.

"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," he noted.

The survey, the second in a semi-annual series called "Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index," was based on interviews with 1,000 randomly selected adults in mid-January. The interviews included more than 110 questions designed to probe respondents' views of the U.S. role in the world and their confidence in how Washington was addressing some two dozen foreign policy issues.

The news for the Bush administration is not good. Compared to the previous Index survey last June, the latest survey showed no improvement in most areas and significant declines in several key areas, including energy, Iraq, Afghanistan, global warming, democracy-promotion, and immigration.

It also found skepticism about the administration's own credibility. Half of the public doesn't think it has been truthful about why the U.S. invaded Iraq, and 51 percent said they trusted the government "not too much" or "not at all" to tell the truth about relations with other countries.

In an echo of other polls taken over the past year, the latest survey, which was sponsored by Public Agenda, an independent group headed by Yankelovich, found deep skepticism about the administration's efforts to spread democracy abroad, a theme that Bush himself returned to Wednesday in a major policy address to the neoconservative Freedom House here Wednesday.

"In this new century, the advance of freedom is a vital element of our strategy to protect the American people, and to secure the peace for generations to come," Bush said. "We're fighting the terrorists across the world because we know that if America were not fighting this enemy in other lands, we'd be facing them here in our own land … [and] one of the greatest forces for freedom in the history of the world is the United States armed forces."

"In this young century, the doubters are still with us; but so is the unstoppable power of freedom. In Afghanistan and Iraq and other nations, that power is replacing tyranny with hope, and no one should bet against it."

However, given 11 foreign-policy objectives, respondents ranked "actively creating democracies in other countries" dead last. Only 20 percent of respondents said they considered that aim to be a "very important" goal of U.S. foreign policy, far below the 70 percent of respondents who placed "cooperating with other countries" on global problems like the environment and combating diseases in the "very important" category. Only 22 percent of respondents voiced confidence that Washington would succeed in its efforts to plant democracy in Iraq.

"Americans are quite skeptical about the goal of promoting democracy," said Yankelovich in a conference call briefing Wednesday. "People feel it's a desirable goal, but, from a commonsense point of view, both Republicans and Democrats have come to the conclusion that democracy is something that countries can only come to on their own."

Indeed, support for the administration's democracy crusade fell most sharply among Republicans, particularly those identified with the Christian Right, over the past six months, according to Yankelovich's article in Foreign Affairs, which is published by the influential Council on Foreign Relations.

The magazine's managing editor, Gideon Rose, said that finding appeared to signal the movement by one of Bush's core constituencies toward mainstream opinion. "[A]lthough 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," according to Yankelovich.

Of all major foreign policy issues, Iraq was found in last June's survey to be the only one to have reached a "tipping point," that is, an issue where politicians and policymakers ignore public opinion – and particularly public dissatisfaction – at their peril.

According to Yankelovich, a tipping point is reached when the vast majority of the public says they are concerned about an issue, with more than 50 percent insisting that they are concerned "a lot," and when majorities believe that the government can do something about the problem.

The latest survey found Iraq continues to be at such a tipping point. If anything, public attitudes have soured further over the past six months, with the proportion of the public giving Bush a failing grade in achieving its goals there rising markedly from 10 percent to 23 percent over that period.

But, according to Yankelovich, Washington's dependence on foreign oil and gas and its impact on national security have also soared over the last six months to tipping-point status, no doubt as a result of rising gasoline prices. The portion of those who "worry a lot" about the problem increased from 42 percent to 55 percent, putting it at the top of the Index' "worry scale" of 18 foreign-policy issues.

At the same time, 50 percent of the public believes that the government has the power to do something about the problem. That contrasts with other anxiety-producing problems, such as global warming and outsourcing of U.S. jobs, about which most respondents believe the government can do relatively little.

Respondents, moreover, gave the government very poor marks on dealing with the issue. Nearly half (46 percent) gave it a "D" or "F." "When issues like energy dependence really strike at peoples' daily living and combine with the perception that the government can do something about it but isn't, that is when we start to see increasing pressure to change direction," said Yankelovich.

In his State of the Union Address at the end of January – just after the survey's interviews concluded – Bush showcased several proposals to reduce Washington's dependence on Middle East oil in particular, an initiative probably taken as a result of the White House's own polling, according to Yankelovich. But those proposals have been depicted in the media as generally insufficient to seriously address the problem.

(Inter Press Service)

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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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