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What Do American Voters Really Think About National Security and Foreign Policy Issues?

While much survey data has been gathered in the months since the election on Americans' attitudes towards specific foreign policy events (e.g., the election in Iraq) or controversies (should the US take action against Iran?), these data are scattered among numerous public polls, each of which tyically has only a short series of questions on foreign policy or national security issues. It has therefore been difficult to get a comprehensive picture of where Americans' views currently stand on these issues, since one has only uncoordinated bits and pieces of data to work with.

The newly-launched Security and Peace Institute (a joint project of The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress) has provided a useful corrective to this situation by releasing a survey conducted for them by the Marttila Communications Group, with an extensive accompanying report. This lengthy survey has a large sample size (1600 voters) which was split-sampled through most of the survey so that an exceptionally wide range of questions and alternative wordings could be tested.

The survey's key findings (summarized below) indicate that, while Republicans retain a substantial lead as the party best able to deal with national security issues, voters' broad foreign policy and security goals should provide a very significant opening for Democrats in the years ahead.

1. The two main international concerns of the American people are preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, particularly to terrorists or hostile regimes, and the destruction of the al Qaeda terrorist network.

2. President Bush receives mixed ratings for his overall performance conducting the War on Terror. Americans are generally supportive of his efforts to dismantle Osama bin Ladenís terrorist network and express confidence in the administrationís ability to protect the United States from future terrorist attacks.

3. Americans reject the strategy of preemption. They overwhelmingly prefer cooperation with other countries, even if it involves short-term compromises of U.S. national interests.

4. Americans remain divided about the Iraq war. While narrow pluralities believe the war was a mistake, was not worth the costs, and has made them less safe from terrorism, a narrow majority hold that removing Saddam Hussein was necessary to win the fight against terror. Nonetheless, Americans believe that bringing U.S. troops home is a far higher priority than building a stable and democratic Iraq.

5. As a result of the Iraq war, a majority of Americans are now more reluctant to support the use of U.S. troops. However, there are several specific circumstances under which a majority do support the U.S. use of troops, including disrupting an attack planned by a foreign country or terrorists, to support NATO or UN peacekeeping, and to halt genocide.

6. Large majorities of Americans believe that Americaís international reputation has deteriorated since President Bush took office. Most believe that the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq badly eroded U.S. credibility and that this loss of status is a serious concern.

7. Voters strongly support U.S. action to protect human rights abroad, prevent genocide, and check the spread of AIDS. They generally agree that the United States has a moral role to play in world affairs.

8. Solid majorities of Americans believe that the United States should be active in world affairs and continue to play an active role in the UN.

9. Americans have a clear perspective about which countries pose the greatest threat to U.S. national security and to world peaceóNorth Korea, Iraq, and Iran. China also draws some concern. They consider the Middle East and Far East the most important regions for U.S. strategic interests.

10. Americans consider spreading democracy a marginal U.S. priority, even in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States has been militarily engaged.

11. In spite of the war on terror, large majorities of Americans believe that a clash of civilizations between the United States and Islam is not inevitable, that future U.S. military conflict with Islamic nations is avoidable, and that Muslims in America and around the world do not support al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, or the practice of terrorism.

12. Republicans enjoy significantly higher ratings on the key issue of national security; Democrats are seen as better able to repair Americaís relations abroad.

Underscoring the potential for Democrats and progressives, data in the survey and report indicate that independent voters tend to be particularly critical of the Bush administration and particularly interested in alternative approaches to American foreign policy. For example, while Bush has a narrowly positive approval rating on handling the war on terror (51/46) among all voters, he has a net negative rating (47/48) among independents. And, while voters overall believe by 19 points (59-40) that the Bush administration haas been successful in dismantling Bin Laden's terror network, among independents that margin falls to just 5 points (52-47).

In terms of general approaches to foreign policy, voters overall oppose the preemption strategy by 58-34, a margin the widens to 64-30 among independents. Similarly, voters as a whole believe, by 63-31, that the US should cooperate with other countries as often as we can, even if that means we have to compromise our interests on occasion, but among independents it's an even more lop-sided 70-26 majority. And, by 56-38, voters overall say that America's long-term interest is to remain lose to traditional European allies, even at the cost of compromise, with independents providing almost 2:1 support (63-32) for this proposition.

Independents are also more likely to believe US made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq (59-39, compared to 52-46 overall) and that the war with Iraq has not been worth the costs (56-40, compared to 50-46 overall).

In short, these survey data give every reason to suppose Democrats and progressives can compete effectively with Bush and the GOP on the terrain of foreign policy and national security. It would be an act of political malpractice to ignore this opporunity and cede these areas to the GOP.