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The Future of War

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
March/April 2011
Foreign Policy

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Expert and popular opinions often don't intersect. And that has become particularly true in a political era characterized by a dislike for Washington, distrust of elite opinion, and the ascendency of Tea Party populism. While elite opinions about U.S. military and national-security affairs are in tune with those of the broader American public in some areas, such as President Barack Obama's handling of China, they diverge wildly in others, such as the threat posed by a nuclear Iran and defense spending. At least some of this divergence may come from the simple fact that Americans' top concerns these days relate to the economy - not defense issues.

FP's experts and the public see eye to eye when it comes to Obama's performance as commander in chief. Experts rate the president, on average, at 5.2 (on a scale of 1 to 10) as a wartime leader - a tepid but not negative assessment. Similarly, a July 2010 Washington Post/ABC Poll found that 55 percent of Americans approved of Obama's performance as commander in chief of the military. These marks fall within the range of the margin of error for Obama's overall approval ratings in the same poll, suggesting that he is perceived of as a similarly adequate president on domestic and foreign policy.

There is also shared skepticism of Obama's signature national-security initiative. FP's experts overwhelmingly (78 percent) believe that the president's vision of a "world without nuclear weapons" will be impossible in practice. Concordantly, in an April 2010 CNN poll, 74 percent of all respondents disagreed with the statement that "the total elimination of all nuclear weapons is possible." This pessimism is striking, given that decades of public opinion polling have shown that roughly seven out of 10 people consistently favor the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, including America's.

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