Kohut: Sharp Drop in U.S. Support for Iraq War, With Isolationism on Rise

November 18, 2005

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Polls and Public Opinion

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, says a recent poll of Americans shows a sharp drop in American support for the war in Iraq, particularly among so-called "elite" groups. "Support for the decision to go to war has fallen amongst the public. It has fallen from 70 percent to about 48 percent, it’s come down a long way," says Kohut, a former head of the Gallup Organization. "But we found the public still is more hopeful about success than most of the leadership groups," he says about the poll, jointly sponsored by the Pew Center and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The poll showed a major rise in isolationist sentiment. Kohut says isolationism "often swells when things aren’t going well. I mean, the spike we’ve seen in sentiment that we should mind our own business is reminiscent of two other spikes—right after Vietnam, and in the 1990s, [after the collapse of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union] when we thought we didn’t have any enemies and history had come to an end."

Kohut was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 17, 2005.

I’ve always been brought up in foreign affairs to believe that the American public by and large is isolationist and has little interest or knowledge in foreign affairs except at moments of high tension like war. Would you say this poll, with its isolationist streak, more or less underscores that the U.S. public is back to its normal frame of mind?

Well, the public always has an ambivalent attitude about our relationships with the larger world. They think we should play a role in the world and, in fact, a leadership role, but the size of the isolationist minority I want to emphasize the word minority—often swells when things aren’t going well. I mean, the spike that we’ve seen in sentiment that we should mind our own business is reminiscent of two other spikes—right after Vietnam, and in the 1990s [after the collapse of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union], when we thought we didn’t have any enemies and history had come to an end.

I don’t want to overstate this. Generally, the American public is disengaged and doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what is going on in the world, but for the most part does think we should play an important role in the world. But how important and to what extent are all subject to time, leadership, and circumstance. The circumstance now is that people are feeling gloomy about our relationships with the world perhaps because of Iraq, perhaps because of growing concerns at home.

Let’s talk about Iraq, because that obviously is first and foremost the major foreign policy concern of the United States. Your poll is interesting to me because it separates out what you call elite audiences from the "general public." How did that come out? Did most people think Iraq was not worth the effort, or what?

Support for the decision to go to war has fallen amongst the public. It has fallen from 70 percent to about 48 percent; it’s come down a long way. There are a lot of calls for timetables and, while people don’t want to just leave Iraq, there is an increasing pressure to begin to get troops out and to begin the process. But we found the public still is more hopeful about success than most of the leadership groups. The Council members that we interviewed, the scientists, the people from the think tanks, they were much more bearish about the prospects of a stable democracy in Iraq than even the public itself. The public hasn’t given up all hope that this might work out, that was also the case among the military people that we interviewed, and among the state’s local officials, the governors and the lawyers? But there is a gap. In this case, even though there is a lot of lost support among the general public, there is even less support among many of the elite groups.

How much of that is partisan politics?

A good deal.

The elite groups are by and large Democratic, is that what you’re saying?

Many of them are, but the military isn’t and state government officials are pretty much balanced like the public.

So those would be the ones more supportive of the war at this time.

That’s right. One of the lessons of the poll is that the elite and the public are divided on trade and immigration, with the public being more anti-trade and concerned about immigration than all of the elite groups—irrespective of partisanship. But on the issues of the war and President Bush, partisanship is more important than the elite-public divide.

And I noticed a sharp drop in support for the United Nations.

That’s part of that spike amongst the public in isolationist sentiment. The public is not feeling good about international organizations. In this case, the decline is even greater among Democrats. The Democrats are still more supportive, but the falloff in this recent survey is more amongst Democrats and Independents than Republicans. Republicans are already there.

Why do you find that?

Well, I don’t know. I think this may be another expression of being a little shell-shocked.

Interesting. How does this translate for a political operative? In other words, if you’re thinking ahead now to 2006 elections or 2008 from this kind of poll, do you get the impression that one should lay off on foreign affairs or press ahead?

Well, you have to keep in mind that we ask a lot of questions about what our priorities should be. I think there is a consensus among leaders and the public as well that it’s weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, energy—and by the way, those were the priorities through the 1990s too, that hasn’t changed. But there are some gaps between the public and the leaders that would be instructive to candidates and that is that the public puts jobs way up there and the public is more concerned about immigration and the public puts even more emphasis on energy. It puts very low emphasis on promoting democracy. If you were trying to make the case for international involvement, you might make it on an energy basis more so than on the basis of spreading the gospel about democracy.

In other words, the public would rather see oil from Saudi Arabia than democracy, necessarily.

I don’t want to make that inference, but clearly there is more concern about energy than there is about spreading democracy as a goal of American foreign policy. I’ll let you draw whatever conclusion you want to draw from that.

President Bush has consistently claimed the war in Iraq is necessary to defeat terrorism, and that if we left Iraq prematurely, terrorists would flourish and spread everywhere. Does the public link those two issues or not?

I think it’s one of the premises that has kept support, to the extent that there is still support, given the fact that we didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction. Let me just get to the numbers on this. We still have a majority saying we should withdraw all of our troops and we still have the public evenly divided on whether the war was a right decision or wrong decision, which is a long way from where it was even a year ago. One of the reasons why those numbers are as high as they are, absent weapons of mass destruction, is the public is concerned about the terrorist threat. Now, they don’t think as they once did that the war has really helped the war on terrorism, but I guess that what you can interpret from this is that they don’t want the situation in Iraq to hurt the war on terrorism.

I noticed the poll showed that people believed that the absence of terrorism in the United States since 9/11 is more a matter of a luck than policy.

Well, the public is skeptical about how good a job we’re actually doing in protecting ourselves.

Interesting. I interviewed Brookings expert Ivo Daalder recently, who said he thought in the 2008 election, whoever the candidates are, they are all going to run against Bush’s foreign policy. Can you draw any conclusions from your poll in that direction?

Well, I think that the most important thing about that is that the principal tenet of Bush’s foreign policy, the war in Iraq, is not seen as succeeding. That makes him vulnerable and makes that an appealing theme, although it’s a little early to figure things out like that.

But on the other hand, the people who are generally critical of Bush are generally for more multilateral diplomacy like the United Nations, but yet the United Nations doesn’t get high marks. It’s an interesting contradiction.

Yes, I think that is. I mean, I think that may reflect some problems that that institution is also having.

I think the poll shows a sort of ambiguous sentiment about China: Is China a potential enemy or friend? This seems to mirror the administration’s feeling about China, also.

Yes, I mean China is a growing power that hasn’t caused any alarm. The percentages of people who say China is an adversary or even a problem hasn’t grown in recent years either among the public or among the elites. Many people -- even in our question that asks who will be our new allies -- are mentioning China.

Of course, our trade with China is so expansive. I guess that is interesting.

The India numbers are interesting, too.

India hasn’t been in the news that much. We did sign an agreement with India in July, but I’m sure most of the people in the polls didn’t even know about that.

Well, no, these are the elites, they know about that.

How does that jibe with the concern about jobs? The job issue garnered a lot of publicity last year when jobs went to foreign countries, such as to India’s telecom industry.

The polls show a big divide on how the elites and the public look at the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA]. The elites think that NAFTA is great for the country and the public is very doubtful of that.

The American public more or less agrees with all these protesters in Argentina who are against the free trade agreement for the Americas, too, I guess.

For different reasons, yes.

I thought, parenthetically, it was interesting how little many people knew about the foreign policy questions you asked them.

Well, that’s true. I think that, for most questions about foreign policy, people are working based on their instincts. They get a glimmer of what’s going on and they use their good judgment to say, "This is how I feel about that issue."

Fifty-nine percent of the poll showed people thought Iran already had nuclear weapons, which even the U.S. government in its wildest predictions says is ten years away.

I think that’s making an assumption about a country that people think is unfriendly and dangerous and aggressive about nuclear know-how.

A larger number of people seemed to support torture than I would have thought.

We find that 45 percent to 46 percent of the public, about what we found in the past, say torture of terrorist suspects is sometimes or often justified, and the numbers for each of the elite groups is much lower than that -- especially low among the military.

I guess people are trying to be pragmatic, that if you can extract some sort of important secret, it’s ok.

I think people feel if there is a terrorist who has information about a weapon of mass destruction going off in an American city, I think that’s how they can justify it.