U.S. should mind its own business


WASHINGTON -- September 11 looks to be losing its power to shape how Americans view foreign policy.

Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the general public and opinion elites rallied to the muscular foreign policy that the Bush administration favored. Today, with more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq, an activist foreign policy holds much less appeal. That at least is the conclusion that emerges from a new poll of elite and grassroots opinion conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The most telling results come in response to questions about what role the United States should play in the world.

In 2002, only 30 percent of the public agreed with the statement that the United States should mind its own business internationally. Today, 42 percent agree. Support for foreign-policy activism is also eroding among opinion leaders across a wide section of American society.

Influential individuals overwhelmingly support the idea that Washington should share leadership with other major powers, a finding consistent with the past. What is different is they are now more inclined to believe that the United States should stop trying to be first among equals. Support for the idea of being no more assertive than other leading nations jumped 26 percentage points among national security elites and 17 points among religious leaders.

The reason for the diminishing appetite for international activism is Iraq, which is the prism through which Americans now view foreign policy. Nearly six in 10 Americans give President Bush a failing grade for his handling of Iraq, and they see Iraq as the most important international problem facing the United States. The general public is split on both the wisdom of the Iraq war and on whether it is helping or hurting the United States in the war on terrorism.

Mr. Bush's supporters will no doubt argue that these findings exaggerate the lack of support for the president's foreign-policy activism. While isolationist sentiment is up, the numbers are only slightly higher than they were just before 9/11 and roughly equal to where they were after the end of the Cold War. And a majority of the public still approves of the president's handling of terrorism.

But in American politics, trends matter. And the trend on foreign policy is definitely working against the administration.

One consequence of the polling data will be to further legitimize criticism of the administration's Iraq policy, especially on Capitol Hill where politicians understand the importance of being on the right side of an issue. A hint of the congressional resurgence emerged when a hawkish Democrat, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the Senate voted overwhelmingly to press the White House toward a drawdown of forces next year.

The hold of the Vietnam War on American politics is impressive. Iraq may be having a similar effect. Reading the poll results, politicians on both sides of the aisle will be pushing a less activist foreign policy, which in the short term will ratify public discontent with the costs of the war. The temptation will be especially strong in the Democratic Party because twice as many Democrats as Republicans favor the idea of having the United States mind its own business overseas.

None of this is good news for Mr. Bush, whose public approval ratings are already at a low point for his presidency. Both the public and elites credit the absence of a second 9/11 to luck rather than to government action. Large majorities of both the public and elites believe that the ability of terrorists to launch a major attack on the United States remains the same or has increased since 9/11.

Mr. Bush tried to re-ignite the fires of his foreign-policy revolution after his re-election by re-crafting his message from antiterrorism to advancing democracy. But there is little support among any group of Republicans and Democrats for moving democracy promotion to the top of the foreign-policy agenda. Even among those who think promoting democracy in the Middle East is a good idea, most believe the policy has little chance of success.

What will shape the foreign policy debate going forward is not the memory of 9/11, but the grinding reality of the American occupation of Iraq.

Lee Feinstein and James L. Lindsay are, respectively, deputy director and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Their e-mails are jlindsay@cfr.org and lfeinstein@cfr.org.

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