August 18, 2004

Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq

Part Four: Beliefs About Foreign Policy

Americans today believe the guiding principles of U.S. foreign policy should be morality, caution and decisiveness. Fully 72% of the public says following moral principles should be a top priority in the way the U.S. conducts foreign policy. Roughly two-thirds (66%) say being cautious should be a top priority and 62% place equal importance on being decisive. Smaller majorities say being practical and compassionate should be part of the equation as well.

While Americans view morality as a key foreign policy value, they place less emphasis on following religious principles. And though decisiveness is valued, being forceful is among the public’s lowest priorities (23% say it should be a top priority). Being flexible in the conduct of foreign policy is valued by four-in-ten Americans, and idealism is a top priority for just 25% of the public.

Proponents and opponents of the use of force in Iraq agree that following moral principles and caution are important priorities in U.S. foreign policy. However, those who favor the decision to go to war place much greater importance on decisiveness than do those who oppose this policy (70% vs. 51%). In addition, those who support the use of force in Iraq are much more likely than those who oppose it to say religious principles should come into play in formulating foreign policy (42% vs. 25%). And nearly twice as many war supporters as war opponents rate “being forceful” as a top priority (29% vs. 16%).

Demographic Fault Lines

While men and women agree on the importance of morality, decisiveness and following religious principles in the conduct of foreign policy, women place more importance on caution, practicality and compassion than do men.

Education and income are also strongly linked to values about foreign policy. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of those who never attended college are advocates for using caution in the conduct of foreign policy, compared to 54% of college graduates who say this should be a top priority. Those who never attended college are much more likely than college graduates to say following religious principles should be a top priority. They also value moral principles and idealism more than do college graduates. A similar pattern can be seen across income groups ­ with less affluent Americans placing more emphasis on caution, religious principles and idealism.

Partisanship and Ideology

Republicans and Democrats generally agree on the importance of being practical, compassionate and idealistic. The biggest gap between the two major party groups is on the importance of being decisive. Fully 75% of Republicans say this should be a top priority in conducting foreign policy, only 56% of Democrats agree. The parties are also divided over how much priority should be given to following religious principles ­ 43% of Republicans say this should be a top priority, compared to 29% of Democrats. Following moral principles is the Republicans’ leading foreign policy value ­ 79% say this should be a top priority. For Democrats, caution and morality share the top ranking ­ 69% say each are top priorities.

There are important divisions within the two political parties as well. Republicans are more deeply divided than Democrats over the importance of caution, decisiveness and religious principles. For moderate or liberal Republicans, being cautious in foreign policy is given the highest priority (72% say this should be a top priority). By comparison, 58% of conservative Republicans say caution should be a top priority. Conservative Republicans value decisiveness more than moderate or liberal members of their party (80% vs. 64% say this should be a top priority). The deepest division within the GOP is on the importance of following religious principles in conducting foreign policy ­ 49% of conservative Republicans vs. 32% of moderate or liberal Republicans say this should be a top priority.

Within the Democratic Party, there are disagreements between the conservative or moderate wing of the party and liberals over the importance of compassion and flexibility. To liberal Democrats, compassion should be the guiding principle of foreign policy. Fully 67% say this should be a top priority. Only 51% of conservative or moderate Democrats share this view. Liberal Democrats also value flexibility more than their conservative or moderate counterparts ­ 52% vs. 39% say this should be a top priority.

Religion and Policy Values

Evangelical Christians have a unique perspective on what values should guide U.S. foreign policy. They are more likely than any other major demographic or political group to believe that following moral principles should be a top priority ­ 86% of white evangelical Protestants hold this view. And they are by far the biggest proponents of following religious principles. Fully 55% of evangelicals say this should be a top priority. This compares with 33% of the general public and 27% of non-evangelical Protestants.

Evangelical Protestants place a great deal of importance on a compassionate approach: 62% say this should be a top priority in conducting foreign policy, compared with 54% of the general public and only 48% of non-evangelical Protestants.

Support for Preemptive War

Opinion about the acceptability of preemptive military action has been fairly consistent for more than a year. Support for preemptive military action peaked in May 2003 at 67%, after the president declared the end of major combat military operations, and now stands at 60%.

Yet partisan views on this subject have shifted significantly. Republicans are now more supportive of the idea of striking at adversaries that have threatened ­ but not attacked ­ the United States. Nearly nine-in-ten Republicans (88%) support taking preemptive action against such countries, up from 79% last May.

Democrats, and to a lesser extent independents, have become more skeptical of taking preemptive military action. Consequently, the divide between Democrats and Republicans over this issue, which was already sizable in May 2003 (19 points), has ballooned to 44 points today.

Civil Liberties and Terrorism

Public perceptions regarding the tradeoff between fighting terrorism and retaining civil liberties have changed gradually, but substantially, over the past three years. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and as late as January 2002, majorities believed it would be necessary to sacrifice some personal freedoms to fight terrorism effectively. Today, just 38% take this view, while 56% say it is not necessary for the average person to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism.

The decline in the belief that it is necessary to give up liberties to reduce terrorism has been uniform across most demographic groups. Only among Republicans and people in upper-income brackets does a majority continue to say it is necessary to give up civil liberties. In all other groups, most say it is not.

Ideological differences on this issue have grown substantially. Two-and-a-half years ago, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans largely agreed that giving up some civil liberties would be necessary. Today, most conservative Republicans (54%) still believe this, but just 24% of liberal Democrats agree. People under age 30 also are among the most likely to say it is not necessary to sacrifice civil liberties, by a 70% to 29% margin.

Bigger Concern: Govt. Inaction on Terror

This turnaround in public attitudes about the need to sacrifice civil liberties does not reflect a belief that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties. In fact, by a 20-point margin, more Americans worry that the U.S. government has not gone far enough to adequately protect the country from terrorism (49%) than say the government has excessively restricted civil liberties in the war on terror (29%).

There is a significant political division on this question. Committed Bush voters say the government has not gone far enough to adequately protect the country by a 56% to 12% margin. Swing voters largely agree, with 54% saying the government has not gone far enough and 26% worrying about civil liberties. But Voters who are committed to Kerry are divided on this question (42% say the government has not gone far enough and 43% say it has gone too far).

Torture Justifiable?

Despite revelations of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a sizable minority of Americans believe that the use of torture against suspected terrorists can be justified under certain circumstances. Overall, 43% believe such tactics are often (15%) or sometimes justified (28%) to gain important information, while a majority (53%) say torture is rarely (21%) or never (32%) justified.

Roughly half of men (48%) see the use of torture as often or sometimes justified, compared with 36% of women. There is a significant generation gap among men on this issue. Fully 54% of men under age 50 see justification for the use of torture in cases of suspected terrorism, compared with only 41% of men age 50 and older. Women of all ages are about equally likely to say torture is rarely or never justified.

Republicans are more likely to see torture as at least sometimes warranted (52%) than are Democrats and independents (38% each). Similarly, more Bush voters (58%) than Kerry voters (32%) or swing voters (42%) view torture as justifiable.

Attitudes toward the Iraq war also are strongly linked to attitudes on this question. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of those who think the war in Iraq was the wrong decision believe torture is rarely or never justified as an interrogation technique. A slim majority (53%) of the people who support the Iraq war see torture as at least sometimes justifiable.

Most Reject U.S. Blame in 9/11

By a 51% to 38% margin, most Americans do not believe that “there is anything that the U.S. did wrong in its dealings with other countries that might have motivated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.” This is largely unchanged from how the public viewed this question in the weeks following the attacks themselves, nearly three years ago.

Even fewer (28%) believe there is any way that the U.S. was “unfair” in its dealings with other countries that might have motivated the terrorist attacks, though this percentage has risen from 23% two years ago, and 21% in late September 2001.

The overall stability in these figures belies a growing ideological and generational divide in perceptions of U.S. wrongdoing prior to the attacks. In the wake of the attacks, about a third in all age groups said U.S. actions may have been a motivating factor. Today, nearly half of people under age 30 (46%) hold that view, while just 19% of those 65 and older continue to say so.

Similarly, views of Republicans and Democrats are increasingly split. Republicans are less likely to see any U.S. culpability today than they were in September 2001 (17% now, down from 27%). By comparison, a narrow majority of Democrats (51%) believe U.S. wrongdoing in dealings with other nations may have motivated the terrorists, up from 40% three years ago. The proportion of independents who now point to problems in U.S. foreign policy prior to the attacks has also risen ­ to 45%, up from 34% immediately after the attacks.

Fully two-thirds (67%) of liberal Democrats say U.S. wrongdoing in its dealings with other countries may have motivated the 9/11 attacks, while 46% of moderate and conservative Democrats agree. Just 13% of conservative Republicans, and a somewhat higher proportion of moderate and liberal Republicans (23%), say there are things the U.S. did wrong that might have motivated the terrorists.

Cite this publication: “Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (August 18, 2004) http://www.people-press.org/2004/08/18/foreign-policy-attitudes-now-driven-by-911-and-iraq/, accessed on July 23, 2014.