Turning Away

Obama Should Take Heed: The Public Wants Less U.s. Involvement In World Affairs

December 17, 2009|By James M. Lindsay

As President Barack Obama moves ahead with his plan to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, his overall approach to foreign policy looks to be losing favor with the American public.

Mr. Obama campaigned on a pledge to renew American global leadership by emphasizing diplomacy and working with other countries to solve common problems. However, Americans today are less convinced of the need for U.S. leadership and the wisdom of multilateralism. That, at least, is the conclusion that emerges from a new poll of public opinion conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The most telling results come in response to two questions about America's role in the world.

The first question asked whether the United States should mind its own business internationally. In 2005, 42 percent of Americans said yes, one of the highest responses recorded for a question pollsters have been asking for a half century. This opposition to an activist foreign policy clearly reflected public anger over the growing insurgency in Iraq.

Rather than falling during the first year of Mr. Obama's presidency, however, opposition to American activism overseas has grown. Today, 49 percent agree that the United States should mind its own business overseas, compared with 42 percent who disagree. This is the first time that a plurality of Americans has said that the United States should mind its own business abroad.

The second question asked whether America should go its own way in international affairs. Today, 44 percent of Americans agree that it should. This is a 16-point jump since the question was last asked in 2005. It is 10 points higher than the previous high, recorded in 1995.

The partisan division on these questions was small. Slightly more than half of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans say the United States should mind its own business. At the same time, 50 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats believe that the United States should go its own way in international matters.

Mr. Obama's supporters will no doubt argue that these findings exaggerate public concern about his handling of foreign policy. They will note that isolationist sentiment typically rises during recessions as the public understandably wants Washington to focus on problems at home.

But the White House should take the poll numbers seriously. The public is clearly suffering from intervention fatigue. It remains skeptical of Mr. Obama's claim that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity." A majority believes the war is not going well, and nearly 6 in 10 want to decrease troop levels or keep them the same. The public is split, 47 percent versus 46 percent, on whether Afghanistan can ever become stable enough to withstand the threat posed by the Taliban. If Mr. Obama's troop surge fails to turn the tide quickly, his Afghanistan policy could become a major political liability.

By the same token, Mr. Obama has yet to show that his multilateral diplomacy works. The public believes he has improved America's image in the world. The percentage saying that America is less respected in the world has fallen 14 points compared to a year ago. But he still has no diplomatic breakthroughs to point to.

Lurking in the background is the question of whether Mr. Obama has the determination needed to succeed in foreign policy. Nearly half of the public worries that he is not assertive enough in dealing with the challenges facing the United States overseas.

In this respect, Iran could be the defining challenge for Mr. Obama's presidency. Tehran continues to thumb its nose at his diplomacy, but a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities could have unacceptable consequences. Should Iran get the bomb, Mr. Obama's critics will blame his weakness, a charge many people appear prepared to believe.

Events and Mr. Obama's considerable oratorical skills may yet turn the public to his side on foreign policy. But in American politics, trends matter. And for now, the trends on foreign policy are working against his presidency.

James M. Lindsay is senior vice president, director of studies and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at the Council on Foreign Relations. His e-mail is jlindsay@cfr.org.

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