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September 8, 2006

Poll Finds Waning Faith in Intervention

by Jim Lobe

Five years after 9/11, the U.S. public is considerably less enthusiastic about projecting military power abroad, according to a major new survey, the first of a spate of polls that are likely to released in the run-up to Monday's fifth anniversary of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press here, found that Republicans remained substantially more supportive of military deployments overseas than both Democrats and independents who also believe – by a three to one margin – that the U.S. has lost respect in the world over the last few years.

The survey of more than 1,500 randomly selected adults also found that nearly half (46 percent) of the respondents consider U.S. support for Israel a "major reason" for the rise in anti-U.S. sentiment around the world, a significant increase since Pew last posed the question 10 months ago.

Significantly, that view was held by similar percentages of self-described Republicans and Democrats who, on most other foreign policy questions, showed wide partisan differences.

The survey, however, was conducted Aug. 9-13, just before the cease-fire that ended the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, when international pressure on Washington to persuade the Jewish state to stop its bombing campaign in Lebanon was at its height.

Publication of the Pew survey coincided with the release of a second poll released Wednesday by CNN which found widespread skepticism over claims by the administration of President George W. Bush that the U.S. is making progress in the war on Iraq and that the war is related to the larger "global war on terrorism" launched after 9/11.

Only one in four respondents in that poll, which was conducted Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, thought that Washington and its allies were winning the war, compared to 13 percent who said the insurgents were winning and 62 percent who said that the war was essentially stalemated.

Despite repeated and increasingly frequent assertions by Bush that the war in Iraq has become the "central front" in the war on terrorism, a majority of 53 percent said it was "an entirely separate military action." A larger majority of 58 percent said they opposed the war, compared to 39 percent who said they favored it – a margin that has not changed substantially over recent months.

The most interesting finding of the latest Pew poll appeared to be the growing public disillusionment with U.S. military intervention.

By a 45 percent to 32 percent margin, respondents said they believed that the most effective way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the U.S. is to "decrease" rather than "increase" Washington's military presence abroad.

As noted in an accompanying analysis by the Pew Center, that finding marks a "stark reversal" from the public's position on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. At that time, a plurality of 48 percent of the public said expanding U.S. military deployments overseas was the best way to protect against future attacks, while 29 percent called for reducing such commitments.

Similarly, according to the new survey, 43 percent of respondents today say they believed that "military strikes" against nations that were trying to develop nuclear weapons was a very important way to reduce future terrorism – a reduction of 15 percent compared to a Pew survey taken in October 2002 when Bush was trying to win congressional approval for a resolution authorizing him to take military action against Iraq.

The new survey also suggested a more general desire to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East compared to four years ago. Asked to identify what would be a "very important" step in reducing terrorism, attacking nuclear facilities was rated the highest (58 percent) in a group of five options. It was followed by increasing defense spending and decreasing dependence on Mideast oil (53 percent) and "not get[ting] involved in other countries' problems" (32 percent).

In the most recent poll, however, attacking nuclear facilities ranked third, far behind decreasing dependence on Mideast oil (67 percent) and increasing defense spending (52 percent), and just two points ahead of the noninvolvement option, which rose (41 percent).

The increase in what some would describe as "isolationist" sentiment echoed a similar finding in another poll conducted by Pew and the Council on Foreign Relations in November 2005. Forty-two percent of respondents said they believed Washington should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own," compared to only 30 percent who took that position in December 2002.

Democrats and independents account for much of these changes. In the summer of 2002, for example, Democrats by an eight-point margin favored an increased military presence overseas. They now favor by a diminished presence by a nearly three-to-one margin.. Support for a decreased military presence among independents has also dropped sharply, by some 17 percentage points, to a 49 percent plurality.

On the question of why the U.S. has lost support around the world, more than two-thirds of respondents identified a "major reason" as the Iraq war, 58 percent cited "America's wealth and power"; 49 percent, "the U.S.-led war on terror"; and 46 percent, "U.S. support for Israel."

Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to cite the Iraq war and the war on terrorism, while Republicans were more likely to cite "America's wealth and power."

The survey also found a gradual increase in the view that the 9/11 attacks signified the beginning of a major conflict between the West and the Islamic world. In October 2001, for example, only 28 percent of respondents agreed with that view; in August 2002, 35 percent expressed agreement, and, in the most recent poll, 40 percent took that position.

Conversely, the percentage of those who agreed with the proposition that 9/11 represented only a conflict with a "small, radical group" has fallen from 63 percent to 49 percent over the same five-year period.

Still, 47 percent of respondents today said that 9/11 attacks were equal in seriousness to the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that launched the U.S. into World War II, while 35 percent said they were "more serious." Younger respondents, however, were significantly more likely to say they were "more serious" than older respondents.

(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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