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Isolationist Ripples Among Americans

Author: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
December 3, 2009

Isolationist Ripples Among Americans - isolationist-ripples-among-americans

James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair


President Barack Obama used his December 1 speech at West Point to announce he is sending thirty thousand more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Now he has to persuade the U.S. public that his decision is the right one. It will not be an easy task.

That at least is the conclusion that emerges from a new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations. The poll, carried out in late October and early November, is a quadrennial survey of foreign policy and national security attitudes conducted among more than six hundred members of CFR and two thousand members of the public.

Pluralities of both the public and CFR members give the president low marks for his handling of Afghanistan policy, with 49 percent of the public and 46 percent of CFR members disapproving. The public and CFR members also agree that the United States is not winning in Afghanistan. Nearly six out of ten Americans say the war is going "not too well" or "not well at all." CFR members are even more pessimistic, with nine out of ten holding these views.

CFR members lean toward supporting the surge strategy in Afghanistan. Half of CFR members think U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan should increase over the next year, while only a quarter want to see them drop. The public leans the other way. Two out of five Americans favor troop cuts, and one in five favors keeping troop levels steady. Despite differences over the wisdom of the surge strategy, both the public and CFR members doubt that more U.S. troops will stabilize Afghanistan; 57 percent of CFR members and 47 percent of the public say it is unlikely that the country can become stable enough to withstand the Taliban threat.

The Afghanistan debate will play out against a background of growing isolationist sentiment stimulated by the financial crisis. When asked whether the United States should mind its own business internationally, 49 percent of the public says yes. That is seven points higher than in 2005 and reflected the highest level of isolationist sentiment since Pew and its predecessor polling bodies began to measure this in 1964. The partisan division on the question was small. Fifty-three percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans want the United States to mind its own business.

Still, the White House can find good news in the Pew-CFR poll. The president gets good marks overall, with 51 percent of the public and 77 percent of CFR members approving of the job he is doing. The percentage of the public that thinks the United States is less respected in the world has dropped, and 44 percent of CFR members list Obama's multilateralism, engagement, or diplomacy as the best things about his handling of foreign policy.

Nonetheless, Obama faces an uphill battle in securing domestic support for his Afghanistan policy. The public is not persuaded that the war can be won at an acceptable cost, and tough economic times have turned their focus inward. If the surge strategy does not produce quick results, or if it produces a surge in U.S. casualties, the president could find himself under intense pressure to reverse course.

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