Mitt Romney and Barack Obama Can't Ignore Foreign Policy

A survey by the Foreign Policy Initiative shows that foreign policy issues matter to voters.

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Robert Zarate is policy director and Evan Moore is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.

For months, the conventional wisdom has been that foreign policy won't matter in the 2012 election. On the right, many GOP strategists counseled that every moment Mitt Romney talked about foreign policy was a lost opportunity to discuss the economy, jobs, and other domestic concerns. On the left, President Barack Obama appeared to embrace the political pablum by saying, "It's time to do some nation-building right here at home," during the Democratic National Convention.

The conventional wisdom is wrong. 

Last week, the Foreign Policy Initiative—a D.C.-based nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization where we work—released a national survey of 1,000 randomly selected likely voters on international affairs and the election. Forty percent of respondents sided with Democrats, 38 percent aligned with Republicans, and 20 percent self-identified as independents or as having no party. Contrary to naysayers, the survey found that, in fact, foreign policy matters in 2012.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

But what does that mean? Let's be clear: The survey—conducted by Basswood Research from September 15-17 with a 3.1 percent margin of error—doesn't claim foreign policy is the single most important issue in this year's election. Rather, it offers compelling evidence that foreign policy is more important to likely voters than political pundits and others in the chattering class had assumed.

For starters, likely voters care deeply about America's place in the world. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed (92 percent) say it's "very important" or "somewhat important" for the United States to play a significant role in global affairs, and 86 percent agree America is a "force for good in the world." But what's more surprising—and illuminating—is how Americans feel about specific international issues:

Growing Concern about Terrorism and National Security. After the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues, 60 percent of likely voters say national security is now "more important" to their decision-making for the presidential vote, and an overwhelming majority (97 percent) believe readiness to be commander in chief is an important qualification for the White House. Moreover, 61 percent don't believe the threat of future terrorism on U.S. soil has decreased since the 9/11 attacks, with 44 percent saying it's increased and 17 percent saying it's stayed constant.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?]

Hawkish on Iran, Shoulder-to-Shoulder With Israel. When asked to name the country posing "the most danger" to U.S. national security today, a plurality (45 percent) name Iran. China finished second at 8 percent. Moreover, 62 percent prefer "preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, even if it means taking U.S. military action to do so" over "avoiding military conflict with Iran, even if it means they could develop nuclear weapons."

A strong majority of likely voters (70 percent)—and, within that, a very strong majority of self-identified conservatives (81 percent)—hold a favorable opinion of Israel, a country that Iran's leaders have repeatedly threatened to "wipe off the map." When respondents were asked to name "America's best ally" today, Israel (16 percent) finished second only to the United Kingdom (54 percent).

Skeptical "Too Much" Spent on Defense. A strong majority (63 percent) believe current military spending is either "about right" (40 percent) or "too little" (23 percent); only 29 percent say it's "too much." That's timely given that defense will be indiscriminately slashed by $500 billion in the next decade if the president and Congress fail to reverse automatic cuts to discretionary federal spending before January 2013.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

A strong majority of those surveyed (70 percent) do not blame the Pentagon for America's growing debt problem, but rather mandatory entitlements (42 percent) or other causes. Public opinion appears to reflect the historical record.  In 1961, when President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a so-called "military-industrial complex," the federal government spent 51 cents out of every dollar on defense, and 37 cents on mandatory entitlements and discretionary domestic programs. In contrast, today less than 19 cents of every dollar spent by the government goes to defense, while more than 72 cents goes to entitlements and domestic discretionary programs.

Outraged by Syria's Bloody Dictator. Two-thirds (66 percent) agree "America should work with our allies to establish no-fly zones in Syria to protect civilians and help ensure a transition to a more pro-Western government instead of the current terrorist-supporting regime of Bashar al-Assad." While President Obama demanded in August 2011 that Assad step down, roughly 30,000 Syrians—and counting—have died since the dictator's forces began a bloody campaign to crush the country's political and armed opposition groups in early 2011.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Supportive of Effective Foreign Aid. Although 54 percent express skepticism of U.S. foreign assistance, 72 percent say they'd support foreign aid that's shown to be "used effectively or not wasted." This suggests policymakers and lawmakers should fashion foreign assistance programs that maximize public transparency and accountability—like President George W. Bush's Millennium Challenge Corporation, which posts online reports on spending, selection criteria, and milestones.

Until recently, Obama and Romney—and the American media—have been relatively quiet on foreign policy. But the Foreign Policy Initiative's national survey suggests that, in the days before the November vote, both candidates will likely have to spend more time explaining to voters their views on national security and other international issues. It looks like foreign policy matters in 2012, after all.

  • Read Heather Hurlburt: 3 Ways Mitt Romney's National Security Talk Is About Politics
  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Can Mitt Romney Best Barack Obama on Foreign Policy?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.