September 24, 2008

Declining Public Support for Global Engagement

Section 4: Global Threats and Security Concerns

Seven years after the 9/11 attacks, terrorism is the public’s top international concern. Nearly three-quarters of Americans (72%) say that Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda represent a major threat to the well-being of the United States. Fewer regard the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, tensions between Russia and its neighbors, or Pakistan’s political instability as major threats to the United States.

Views of most of these potential international threats have changed little over the past few years. Yet there are indications of greater concern over Russia. Currently, 44% say that growing tensions between Russia and its neighbors are a major threat to the United States; in May, far fewer Americans considered growing authoritarianism in Russia to be a major threat to the U.S. (24%).

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see many of these international concerns as major threats. An overwhelming majority of Republicans (86%) say that al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups represent a major threat to the country’s well-being, compared with 70% of independents and 68% of Democrats.

Similarly, nearly three-quarters of Republicans (74%) say that Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat to the United States, compared with just over half of Democrats and independents (56% each). There are smaller differences in views of whether other concerns represent major threats.

The partisan gap in evaluations of major threats is reflected in how supporters of McCain and Obama view these concerns. Voters who say they are certain they will vote for McCain are substantially more likely than committed Obama supporters to view most of these concerns as major threats. The differences over the threat presented by Iran’s nuclear program are particularly striking: About three-quarters of committed McCain supporters (76%) say that Iran’s nuclear program represents a major threat to the well-being of the United States, compared with 60% of swing voters and just half of those who say they are certain to support Obama in November.

Iran: Top National Threat

When asked to volunteer the country that represents the greatest danger to the U.S., more people (21%) name Iran than any other country. Roughly equal percentages name China (16%), Russia (14%) and Iraq (13%) as the country that presents the greatest danger to the U.S.

While Iran is viewed as the top danger to the United States, as was the case in 2007 and 2006, there have been substantial changes in views of the threat posed by other nations. Notably, about as many people now view Russia as the country posing the greatest danger to the United States as did so in February 1992, shortly after the Cold War ended (14% now vs. 13% then). In February 2007, just 2% volunteered Russia as the country posing the greatest threat to the United States.

Over the same period, public concerns over North Korea have eased considerably. Just 6% cite North Korea as the country representing the greatest danger to the United States, down from 17% in February 2007.

Russia, China: Not Adversaries

While a small but growing percentage views Russia as the top national danger to the United States, the public generally views Russia as a serious problem, but not an adversary. In this regard, opinions about Russia are nearly identical to views of China.

Only about one-in-five (18%) sees Russia as an adversary, while about half (48%) say Russia is a serious problem, but not an adversary. Slightly more than a quarter (28%) say that Russia is not much of problem. The public views China in almost the same way, with a plurality (49%) saying China is a serious problem, but not an adversary. Opinions about whether China is viewed as a serious problem or an adversary have changed little since 1997.

There are only modest partisan and ideological differences in views of both Russia and China. Slightly more Democrats and independents than Republicans say that each country is not much of a problem, but the prevailing bipartisan view is that Russia and China are serious problems, but not adversaries.

Views of Terrorist Threat

Most Americans continue to say that the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the United States is the same or greater than it was at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

More than four-in-ten (43%) say that the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the U.S. is the same as it was at the time of 9/11; 18% say that terrorists’ capabilities are greater now than they were then. Fewer than four-in-ten (36%) believe that the ability of terrorists to strike the U.S. is less now than on 9/11. These opinions have changed only modestly over the past six years.

Nearly half of Republicans (48%) say that the ability of terrorists to launch a major strike is less now than at the time of 9/11. Four-in-ten independents and just a quarter of Democrats agree. Solid majorities of Democrats (71%) and independents (58%) say terrorists’ capabilities are the same or greater than they were then, compared with half of Republicans.

On balance, the public believes that reducing the U.S. military presence overseas – rather than increasing it -
will have the greater effect in reducing the threat of terrorist attacks in the United States. Nearly half (48%) say that decreasing the U.S. military presence overseas will have a great impact in reducing terrorism, compared with just a third who favor increasing the nation’s military presence. These views have changed little from 2006; but the balance of opinion on this issue has in effect reversed since August 2002, less than a year after 9/11.

Republicans and Democrats take sharply different views on how to reduce the threat of terrorism. By greater than three-to-one (66% to 21%), Democrats say decreasing rather than increasing America’s international military presence would reduce the threat of terrorism. By nearly two-to-one (49% to 27%), Republicans favor the opposite – increasing the U.S. presence overseas rather than drawing it down. Half of independents believe that decreasing the U.S. military presence will have a greater impact in limiting terrorism, while 32% say that increasing U.S. military presence will achieve that goal.

Guantanamo Detainees

Nearly half of Americans (48%) say that the government’s policies toward the prisoners at Guantanamo are fair, while just over a third (35%) say they are unfair. Opinions on this issue have remained relatively unchanged since the question was first asked in February of this year.

About two-thirds of Republicans (68%) believe that U.S. policies toward these prisoners are fair, and only 17% say the policies are unfair. Similarly, more independents say the policies are fair than say they are unfair (50% vs. 34%). By contrast, half of Democrats say the policies are unfair, while only about a third (32%) say these policies are fair.