Foreign and Domestic Polls Show Declining Support for U.S. Engagement Abroad

The country isn't becoming isolationist but is more domestically focused.

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By Jodie Allen, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

President Barack Obama may find little comfort in public opinion polls both at home and abroad as he considers further troop deployments in Afghanistan and using military force to confront other challenges around the globe.

Close to home, surveys taken over the course of the last several years find declining appetite among the U.S. public for armed interventions overseas. Most recently, in a Sept. 22 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, just half (50 percent) of Americans now say that U.S. and NATO troops should remain in Afghanistan "until the situation has stabilized." This is a notable decline from the 57 percent who said so as recently as June, when 54 percent also said they approved of Obama's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan early this year.

Resistance to military engagement in Afghanistan has risen despite that fact that in the same September survey a substantial majority of the public (76 percent) rates the possibility of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan as a major threat to the well-being of the United States. As the survey report notes, nearly as many regard the return of Taliban control as a major threat as say the same about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons (82 percent).

This is not to say that Americans have become isolationists, at least not in principle. Overwhelming support for an active role in foreign affairs is evident in Pew Research surveys going back to the Cold War. Most recently, a May 2009 survey found fully 90 percent of the public agreeing that "it's best for our country to be active in world affairs," a proportion that has remained relatively constant over the past two decades. Moreover, the number of respondents completely agreeing with this statement bounced back to 51 percent from 42 percent two years ago.

Still, the U.S. public enthusiasm for global engagement has waned noticeably in recent years. A year ago, a September 2008 Pew Research poll found fewer Americans than at any point in this decade placing a high priority on dealing with various global problems such as preventing genocide, strengthening the United Nations, promoting and defending human rights, and reducing the global spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Nor are Americans any longer convinced that more boots on the ground will translate into more safety. In fact, in a February poll, by a 50 percent-to-31 percent margin, Americans endorsed the view that decreasing the U.S. military presence abroad is the more effective way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the United States. By contrast, in August 2002, before the start of the Iraq war, Americans said that increasing the U.S. military presence abroad was the more effective way to prevent terrorist attacks by a 48 percent-to-29 percent margin.

The public is also evenly split on whether diplomacy in Muslim countries or increasing military operations against terrorist networks is more effective in reducing terrorist attacks. As with keeping forces in Afghanistan, opinions split sharply along partisan lines on this question. By a 62 percent-22 percent margin, Republicans see military operations as more effective than diplomacy in combating terrorist networks. Conversely, Democrats favor diplomatic over military interventions by about two-to-one (57 percent to 28 percent). Independents, mirroring overall public opinion, are nearly closely divided (41 percent favor military operations, 38 percent favor diplomatic efforts).

College graduates are also more likely to put faith in diplomacy (54 percent) in fighting terrorism; by contrast, those with a high school education or less are more likely to favor increased military operations (46 percent vs. 32 percent who favor diplomatic efforts). 

The president may find the prospects for rallying public opinion abroad appear still more daunting. To be sure, the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted in 25 nations in May and June, found Obama enjoying far more widespread and intense support than his predecessor garnered. But his decision to increase military forces in Afghanistan was the exception to the rule in the popularity of his policies. Significant opposition was tallied in every NATO country surveyed, with upwards of half—Germany (63 percent), France (62 percent), Poland (57 percent), Canada (55 percent), Britain (51 percent) and Spain (50 percent)—expressing disapproval of further troop deployments. Not surprisingly, opposition was even stronger in Muslim-majority nations. Even in Turkey, a longtime NATO ally, a scant 16 percent approved of Obama's policy. Indeed, many in NATO countries want troops withdrawn altogether.

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