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November 18, 2005

Survey: Americans Reject Globo-Cop Role

by Jim Lobe

U.S. opinion leaders who expressed strong confidence in Washington's global leadership in the late 1990s have been chastened by the Iraq war, which has also spurred a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment in the general public, according to the latest in a series of surveys released here Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The quadrennial survey, produced in collaboration with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), also found a sharp drop in support for the United Nations and growing concern about Washington's image abroad among both elite sectors and the public, due primarily to the Iraq war.

Unlike the general public, however, elite groups identified U.S. support for Israel as the second major factor contributing to global unhappiness with Washington.

The survey, which was carried out in September and October, found little support for the Bush administration's democracy-promotion efforts abroad. While most public and elite respondents expressed sympathy for the goal, neither sector rated it a top foreign policy priority, and both were skeptical – elite groups far more so – that it could be achieved in the Middle East, in particular.

And while the poll found a majority (56 percent) of the public still believes the U.S. will be successful in establishing a stable democracy in Iraq, opinion leaders, with the exception of military officers, are much more doubtful, with around 40 percent believing that Iraq will split into three countries.

Like another quadrennial public opinion study by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR), the Pew survey is looked to by specialists as one of the most reliable barometers of public and elite foreign policy attitudes, in part because it tracks responses to the same or very similar questions to respondents over a relatively long period of time.

While the public part of the survey uses conventional telephone polling techniques, the elite respondents, who were selected through their listing on specific directories, were interviewed either by telephone or online.

A total of 520 opinion leaders, or "Influentials," divided roughly into eight different sectors – news media; foreign affairs; security; state and local government; academic or think tank; religion; scientists and engineers; and military – took part.

Pew director Andrew Kohut noted that the overall elite sample, with the exception of the military sector, tilted Democratic.

At the same time, the survey's timing made it impossible for it to take into account the continuing erosion in Bush's public approval ratings that has taken place over just the past month.

The Pew poll showed a 40 percent overall approval rating for Bush as of mid-October, but more recent polls have shown a further drop to around 37 percent. Similarly, the Pew poll still found that a majority of 52 percent approved of his conduct of the "war on terrorism," but a Wall Street Journal poll published last week found for the first time that a majority now disapproves.

Some of Pew's findings echo those of the latest CCFR survey released 14 months ago. Like the Pew report, it also found that the Iraq war had reduced the appetite of the public and the elite for unilateral military engagements, in particular. At the same time, however, it found growing support for multilateralism and the UN on a range of issues.

But the Pew report suggests that public sentiment has become more isolationist, at least as measured by respondents' reaction to the assertion that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."

Forty-two percent of respondents agreed with that view, up from 30 percent in 2002 and roughly equivalent to other recent periods, such as immediately after the Vietnam War in 1975 and again in 1995, just after Republicans swept Congress on a platform that strongly rejected then-President Bill Clinton's multilateralism, when the country turned inward.

Moreover, Pew found a sharp deterioration in U.S. attitudes toward the United Nations, reflecting perhaps the impact of the recent "Oil-for-Food" scandal that neoconservatives and other right-wing forces have used effectively over the past year to stoke opposition to the UN

Only about half of respondents (48 percent) expressed a positive opinion of the UN, down from 77 percent in August, 2001. Similarly, 54 percent of respondents said Washington should "cooperate fully with the UN," down from 67 percent in 2002, on the eve of the Iraq invasion.

On the other hand, the new poll growing sensitivity to how the rest of the world sees the U.S., with two-thirds of the public agreeing that the U.S. is "less respected" today than in the past, and 43 percent of the sample asserting that that perception is a "major problem" for Washington.

Both Influentials (88 percent) and the public (71 percent) point to Iraq as the major reason for this decline. But while the public (60 percent) blames "America's wealth and power" as the second most-important cause, 64 percent of the all Influentials, including higher percentages of media professionals, security experts, military officers, and foreign-affairs specialists, cite U.S. support for Israel.

Significantly, historic U.S. support for authoritarian Arab governments – which the Bush administration says has been a major cause of Washington's problems in the Middle East – is seen by both groups as relatively insignificant.

The Pew survey found that elite attitudes in favor of strong U.S. leadership abroad – which were particularly pronounced in the latter part of the Clinton administration – have now moved closer to more modest roles long favored by the general public, of which a total of 37 percent say the U.S. should either be the "single world leader" (12 percent) or should share leadership but be "the most assertive" (25 percent).

In 1997, some two-thirds of elite respondents either for "single world leader" or "the most assertive" among a shared leadership. In the most recent survey, the percentage is closer to half, with significant majorities of religious leaders and scientists and engineers – the two most dovish groups – opting for significantly more-restrained roles.

Another difference from the late 1990 disclosed by the latest survey is a more temperate view of China by both the general public and the Influentials. While solid majorities of elites and a plurality of the public (45 percent) continue to see China as a "serious problem" fewer than 20 percent in each group describe it as an "adversary," with many elites predicting that it will become an increasingly important U.S. ally.

(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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