September 5, 2002

One Year Later: New Yorkers More Troubled, Washingtonians More On Edge

III. Foreign Policy and 9/11: Stay Involved, But More Say Go It Alone

A year after the attacks, the public still believes that the best way to avoid problems like terrorism is to stay engaged internationally. A 53% majority currently holds that view, down from 61% last October. The number who say it is better not to get too involved in overseas problems has shown no significant increase; 32% said that in October, 34% today. And when the public is given a menu of possible anti-terrorist options, 32% rate avoiding international problems as a very important way to combat terrorism.

At the same time, the public has become much more supportive of a terrorism policy based primarily on U.S. national interests. A 45% plurality backs a policy based mostly on U.S. interests, while 35% believe the United States should strongly take allied interests into account. This is a major change since last October when the public, by two-to-one (59%-30%), favored taking allied interests into account. In fact, support for multilateralism is even lower than it was in early September 2001, just prior to the attacks, when 48% of Americans favored that approach.

This shift has occurred across all age, income and political groups. But the change among Republicans is especially evident; in October, a solid majority of Republicans (56%) said they favored an approach to terrorism that strongly took allied views into account. In the current survey, about half that number (29%) support a strong multilateralist approach while 57% back a terrorism policy based primarily on U.S. national interests. Democrats and independents also now are much more likely to favor policy premised on national interests but the change among Republicans has been more striking.

Republicans also are more likely than Democrats and independents to say that U.S. terrorism policy already takes allied interests into account. More than half of Republicans (53%) believe this, while 36% think that the United States is mostly acting on its own interests in the war on terrorism. Democrats are more divided on this question, while nearly half of independents (49%) view the United States as mostly pursuing its own interests.

Overall, the public is divided on this point, which represents a slight shift since April, when a 48% plurality said the U.S. was taking allied interests into account. The April survey also showed that people living in major Western European nations thought that the U.S. was mainly acting on its own in the war on terrorism (See “Americans and Europeans Differ Widely on Foreign Policy Issues,” April 17, 2002).

Limited Conflict, For Now

For the most part, the public views the terrorist attacks as part of a limited conflict with a small radical group rather than the start of a broader clash between the West and Islam. But the number who believe the attacks lit the fuse on a wider conflict has increased, from 28% last October to 35% in the current survey. Further, another 19% believe it will grow into major conflict ­ meaning 54% say it already is a major clash between the West and Islam or eventually will become one.

Opinion on this question is linked with concerns about future terrorism. More than half (56%) of those who say they are very worried about a new attack say Sept. 11 began a major clash between the West and Islam. Another 17% say it is limited but will grow into a larger conflict. By comparison, four-in-ten of those who express little concern over new attacks say the terrorist attacks started a major conflict or believe it will turn into one.

In terms of the factors contributing to the attacks, the public continues to believe that the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11 were motivated by their political, rather than religious, beliefs. More than half (53%) believe the terrorists were driven by their political beliefs, little change from last November (49%).

One-Third Say Past U.S. Acts Motivated 9/11

The public is no more inclined than it was last fall to say that past U.S. actions may have motivated the attacks. About four-in-ten (38%) believe past U.S. wrongdoing in its dealings with other countries may have motivated the attacks ­ little change from last September (33%) ­ while 49% reject this view.

The idea that U.S. actions may have led to the attacks has credence among some demographic groups. Nearly half of college graduates and people under age 50 say past U.S. actions may have motivated the attacks (49%, 45% respectively).

By comparison, fewer people say that the United States has been unfair in its dealings with other countries in a way that may have led to the attacks. Just 23% of the respondents who were asked this form of the question agreed that unfair dealings by the U.S. may have motivated the attacks, while 64% disagreed. That is virtually unchanged from last September (21%). Twice as many liberals as conservatives say that unfair actions by the United States may have led to the attacks (37% vs. 18%).

Aggressive Anti-Terrorist Steps Favored

Nearly half of Americans (48%) say increasing U.S. forces overseas would be effective in reducing terrorism, while 29% believe it would be better to reduce the nation's overseas military presence. Republicans favor expanding America's overseas presence by more than two-to-one (58%-22%). Democrats are divided: 41% want a greater international military presence, 34% think decreasing it would be the best way to reduce the terrorists threat.

When asked to assess the importance of several anti-terrorism options, 58% rate taking military action against countries developing nuclear weapons as very important. Among non-military options, reducing the nation's dependence on Middle East oil is the leading anti-terrorism measure. Other steps, such as encouraging democracy and alleviating poverty in the Middle East, are less highly regarded. Public opinion on anti-terrorist strategies has changed little since January of this year.

There are major partisan differences over some of these approaches. The biggest gap between Republicans and Democrats is over military-related measures; Republicans are more supportive of attacking countries that may be developing nuclear weapons and increasing the defense budget. But those differences extend to non-military issues as well. Nearly half of Republicans (46%) see encouraging democracy in Middle East countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia as a very important way to reduce terrorism, compared with 37% of Democrats.

Americans who express a high level of concern about future terrorism are more likely to favor aggressive strategies than those who are less worried. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) of those who are very worried about future attacks on the U.S. see striking at countries who are developing nuclear weapons as a very important way to combat terrorism, compared with 60% of those who are only somewhat concerned.

Iraq Conflict: Not Quick or Easy

Unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the public expects that a new conflict with Iraq would not be concluded quickly. Half of Americans (52%) expect that a war with Iraq will be long, while 38% say it can be concluded quickly. That represents a major difference from the public's mood prior to the 1991 war, when most Americans (57%) thought it would end quickly.

Opponents of military action against Iraq are much more likely than supporters to anticipate a lengthy conflict. Six-in-ten (64%) of those who oppose the use of force when major casualties are mentioned expect a long war, while just three-in-ten (29%) say it will be brief. Among those who favor military action under that scenario, 52% say the war expect the war to be concluded quickly, compared with 42% who expect a long conflict.

There is much more agreement on the question of whether the United States will have to keep military forces in Iraq following a conflict to maintain civil order there. Three-quarters of Americans (76%) expect U.S. troops will have to stay in Iraq after military action there; this view is shared by all demographic and political groups.

Two-thirds also support the deployment of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to secure civil order in that country. That is about the same as in January, when 68% backed the continued deployment of forces in Afghanistan to maintain order. Asked a different form of the question, 56% said the United States should “come to the aid of Afghanistan” to help it recover from war, while 35% said the U.S. should not get involved.

Focused Americans Back Force

Americans are not yet as engaged by the prospect of war with Iraq as they were during the days leading up to the Persian Gulf War. But those who are thinking a lot about possible military action against Baghdad ­ 46% of the public ­ take a far different view of the issue than those who have given it less consideration.

Fully 85% of those who have thought a “great deal” about whether the United States should use force to oust Hussein favor that action, compared with half of those who have given less consideration to a possible attack on Iraq. Even when the possibility of heavy casualties is mentioned, 55% of those who have thought a great deal about a possible conflict still support military action, while 35% of those who have paid less attention do so.

It is important to note that those who say they have thought a great deal about the possibility of an attack on Iraq generally favor military-related strategies against terrorism, such as increased defense spending and initiating military action against countries who develop nuclear weapons. Yet even those who give relatively low priority to those measures ­ and have focused on the possibility of military action against Iraq ­ support the idea of using force against Hussein's regime at higher rates than do those in that group who have not given the matter as much consideration.

There is a partisan split on these attitudes, with Republicans more supportive than Democrats and independents of taking military action against Hussein. Better than seven-in-ten Republicans generally favor the use of force against Iraq, while 58% support it if it meant thousands of casualties. Six-in-ten Democrats (61% ) back military action, but just a third (32%) favor it in the case of major casualties. There is no gender gap on the general question of using force against Iraq, but men are more likely than women to favor military action when casualties are mentioned (by 51% to 34%).

Aside from the question of casualties, a 56% majority conditions its support for military action against Iraq upon Bush gaining the consent of Congress; roughly a third say the president should be able to proceed even if Congress opposes the use of force. Democrats are far more supportive than Republicans of Bush seeking the backing of Congress before launching an attack.