Foreign Affairs More Important than Domestic Issues in U.S. Presidential Election, Shows New Pew-CFR Poll

August 18, 2004

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August 18, 2004 - For the first time since the Vietnam era, foreign affairs and national security issues are looming larger than economic concerns in a presidential election. The September 11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed not only have raised the stakes for voters as they consider their choice for president, but also have created deep divisions and conflicting sentiments over U.S. foreign policy in a troubled time. These are the central findings of a nationwide survey of foreign policy attitudes by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted in association with the Council on Foreign Relations in July.

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Dissatisfaction with Iraq is shaping opinions about foreign policy as much, if not more than, Americans’ continuing concerns over terrorism. Americans are acutely aware of – and worried about – the loss of international respect for the United States given disillusionment over Iraq. And by roughly two-to-one, this loss of respect is viewed as a major – not minor – problem for the United States.

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Continuing discontent with the way things are going in Iraq underlies public criticism of the Bush administration’s overall approach to national security. The survey of foreign policy attitudes, conducted July 8-18 among 2,009 adults nationwide, finds a solid 59% majority faulting the Bush administration for being too quick to use force rather than trying hard enough to reach diplomatic solutions. But while the public has deep reservations about the war in Iraq, there is sustained support for the doctrine of preemption. A 60% majority believes that the use of military force can at least be sometimes justified against countries that may seriously threaten the U.S. but have not attacked.

Moreover, evaluations of President Bush’s handling of Iraq itself remain critical. An update of public opinion on Iraq, conducted August 5-10 among 1,512 adults, shows that more than a month after the transfer of sovereignty to the new Iraqi government, 52% disapprove of the way Bush is managing that situation. And almost six-in-ten (58%) continue to say that the president does not have a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion.

At the same time, there are also expressions of support for hard-line antiterrorism measures both domestically and overseas. By a significant margin (49%-29%), more Americans are concerned that the government has not gone far enough to protect the country than are concerned that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties. The poll also finds that while a narrow majority of Americans (53%) believe that torture should rarely or never be used to gain important information from suspected terrorists, a sizable minority (43%) thinks torture can at least sometimes be justified.

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Nowhere is the partisan divide more evident than in views of America’s global standing. Fully 80% of Democrats and 74% of independents say the United States is less respected by other countries than in the past. Only about half of Republicans (47%) believe the U.S. has lost respect.

Partisan gaps are also seen in differing visions of the nation’s long-term foreign policy goals. Democrats rate protecting the jobs of American workers and combating terrorism as about equal in importance, and at the top of their scale of foreign policy priorities. For Republicans, by comparison, combating terrorism is by far the most important policy objective. Beyond that, many more Republicans than Democrats view preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction as a top priority, while Democrats attach greater urgency to strengthening the U.N., dealing with world hunger, and reducing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases.

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The survey includes a commentary by Council Fellows Max Boot, Lee Feinstein, and James M. Lindsay.

For full results of the survey go to cfr.org.

Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, national membership organization and a nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that individual and corporate members, as well as policymakers, journalists, students, and interested citizens in the United States and other countries, can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press is an independent opinion research group that studies attitudes toward the press, politics and public policy issues. Sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Center is best known for regular national surveys that measure public attentiveness to major news stories, and for polling that charts trends in values and fundamental political and social attitudes.

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