Politicians and political consultants generally believe elections are not won or lost on foreign policy issues. With the midterm congressional elections approaching, many political experts contend this is true, even in the aftermath of last September's terrorist attacks and with a military confrontation with Iraq looming.
The latest nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center, conducted in association with the Council on Foreign Relations, focuses on the impact of the terrorist attacks on American public opinion one year later. The results of this poll suggest that, whatever their effect on the domestic political landscape, last year's terrorist attacks have made a continuing and probably lasting imprint on Americans' sense of national priorities. The attacks have blurred the traditional lines dividing domestic and foreign policy concerns, and Americans are giving a higher priority to national security issues than they have in the years following the Cold War.
Lingering Concerns About Terrorism
The Pew Center data suggest that one year after the attacks on New York and Washington, Americans remain concerned about the possibility of another terrorist strike.
Most Americans (62%) say they were very or somewhat concerned that there soon will be another terrorist attack on the U.S. Virtually the same number (61%) believe the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the United States is greater or the same today as it was a year ago.
These findings are in keeping with the public's views about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. A majority of Americans still believe the overall war effort is going well, though the number holding that view has declined from 89% in January to 65% today. When asked about the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, however, Americans express greater doubts. Just 15% of Americans rate the U.S. military action in Afghanistan to be a success, about the same proportion (12%) judge it a failure, with an overwhelming majority, 70%, saying it is too early to judge.
Concerns about the progress of the counterterrorism effort extend to the homefront as well. A majority of Americans (57%) say the government is doing a good or excellent job in defending Americans at home against a future terrorist attack. This represents a decline from a peak of 69% last October, before the creation of the Transportation Security Administration to improve airport security, and before the administration put its support behind the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, an initiative that draws broad support, even though about half acknowledged they hadn't heard about the proposal.
Most Americans say they believe building defenses at home to prevent future terrorist attacks is more important than taking military action abroad to avert terrorist attacks. When asked to choose, just three-in-ten give priority to military action overseas, while half (51 percent) give greater priority to homeland defense.
When asked specifically to judge the anti-terrorism efforts of their local governments, only 47% rate those efforts as excellent or good. That result suggests that homeland security could become a factor affecting local congressional races.
The Pew Center data illustrate the importance of the president taking a leadership role in making the case for a confrontation with Iraq.
Only 37% believe the president has clearly explained why the United States might use military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Indeed, despite a fervid debate in official Washington, including highly publicized Senate hearings in August, only 46% said they had thought a great deal about whether the United States should use force in Iraq.
To the extent the public has reached a conclusion, the Pew Center data suggest that American support for military action against Iraq is solid (64% favor military action to oust Saddam Hussein) but tempered by other concerns.
Perhaps most important, Americans place cooperation with allies high on the list of factors for a military operation. Of those who favor military action to oust Saddam, just 30% feel the United States should do so without support from our allies. Congressional approval was another important factor, with 56% saying President Bush should use force only if Congress favors a confrontation, while 34% said the president should use force even if Congress opposes it.
America's Role in the World
The Pew data also indicate the ways in which the terrorist attacks have affected Americans' views of the relative importance of foreign policy, and on American engagement in international affairs.
Americans continue to support a high level of U.S. involvement in international affairs. A declining but still significant number (53%) say American involvement in solving international problems is the best way to avoid problems like terrorism.
One year after the attacks, and amidst signs of a weak economic recovery, the public is about evenly divided over whether the war on terrorism or economy should be higher on the President's agenda. Roughly a third (34%)say it is more important for the president to focus on the war on terrorism than on the economy, while 39% give greater priority to the economy, and 22% believe the president should give equal attention to both.
In the past, women have placed more emphasis on domestic concerns than men. But in the current survey women, by two-to-one (46%-23%), favor Bush focusing more on the war on terrorism than domestic policy. The apparent closing (or overturning) of the gender gap suggests how much uncertainty last September's terrorist attacks may inject into political calculations this fall.