October 18, 2012

On Eve of Foreign Debate, Growing Pessimism about Arab Spring Aftermath

Public Favors Tough U.S. Stance on Iran, China

Overview

As next week’s third and final presidential debate on foreign policy approaches, a national survey by the Pew Research Center finds increasing public pessimism about developments in the Middle East and more support for tough policies to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and economic issues with China. However, there is no change in the consensus in support for ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

Doubts have spread about the political direction of countries swept up in the Arab Spring protests that began almost two years ago. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (57%) do not believe the changes in the Middle East will lead to lasting improvements for people living in the affected countries, up sharply from 43% in April 2011.

And a majority of Americans (54%) continue to say it is more important to have stable governments in the Middle East, even if there is less democracy in the region. Just 30% say democratic governments are more important, even if there is less stability.

The public has long favored tough measures to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and 56% now say it is more important to take a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program, while 35% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict. In January, 50% favored taking a firm stand against Iran and 41% said it was more important to avoid a confrontation.

When it comes to China, 49% of Americans want the U.S. to get tougher with China on economic issues, compared with 42% who say it is more important to build a stronger relationship. In March 2011, the balance of opinion was the reverse: 53% said building a stronger relationship was more important while 40% advocated tougher policies.

The national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Oct. 4-7, 2012 among 1,511 adults, including 1,201 registered voters, finds that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney run about even on most foreign policy issues. On the question of who can do a better job making wise decisions about foreign policy, 47% of voters favor Obama and 43% Romney. This represents a substantial gain for Romney, who trailed Obama by 15 points on foreign policy issues in September. Romney gained on several domestic issues as well, including the deficit and jobs. (For more, see “Romney’s Strong Debate Performance Erases Obama’s Lead,” Oct. 8, 2012.)

Romney holds a nine-point lead over Obama on dealing with China’s trade policies (49% to 40%). Among independent voters, Romney holds a 16-point advantage (50% to 34%).

On dealing with other issues – Iran’s nuclear program and political instability in countries like Egypt and Libya – neither candidate has a clear advantage.

A separate survey finds that the public is divided over the Obama administration’s handling of last month’s terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, which killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The administration’s handling of the attack became a major point of contention in the Oct. 16 debate between Obama and Romney.

About four-in-ten (38%) Americans disapprove of the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate, while 35% approve. About a quarter (27%) express no opinion.

Skepticism about Changes in Middle East

A majority of Americans (54%) say it is more important to have stable governments in the Middle East, even if there is less democracy in the region, while 30% say it is more important to have democratic governments, even if there is less stability. The percentage prioritizing democracy in the region has slipped over the past year and a half. In March 2011, in the early days of the Arab Spring, 37% said democracy in the region was more important than stability.

There is little partisan difference on this question; both Republicans and Democrats place a higher priority on stability. Independents also prioritize stability over democracy in the Middle East (62% vs. 27%).

By more than two-to-one (57% to 25%), the public does not think changes in political leadership in Middle Eastern countries such as Libya and Egypt will lead to lasting improvements for the people living there. Wide majorities of Republicans (68%) and independents (60%) do not anticipate lasting improvements for the people living in these countries. Democrats are more divided: 37% say they will lead to lasting improvements, 45% say they will not.

While there is no public consensus on how changes in the Middle East are likely to affect the United States, few think the effects will be positive. Just 14% believe the leadership transitions in the region will be good for the United States, down from 24% in April 2011. More than twice as many (36%) say these changes will be bad for the United States, while 38% say they will have little effect.

Nearly half (49%) of Republicans say changes in the Middle East will end up being bad for the United States, while the plurality view among Democrats (48%) is that the effect for the U.S. will be minimal.

Public Favors Less U.S. Involvement in Region

More than six-in-ten (63%) say they think the U.S. should be less involved with changes of leadership in the Middle East, compared with just 23% who say the U.S. should be more involved.

Although Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to favor greater involvement, just 34% of Republicans advocate this (compared with 20% of Democrats and 19% of independents).

Mixed Approval of Administration’s Handling of Libya Attack

A separate survey, conducted Oct. 12-14 among 1,006 adults, finds that 38% disapprove of the Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, while 35% approve. About a quarter (27%) express no opinion.

The administration gets lower ratings from those who followed news about investigations into the embassy attack very or fairly closely. Among this group, 36% approve of the administration’s handling of the situation and 52% disapprove.

More Republicans (67%) followed news about the Libya investigations than did Democrats (53%) or independents (55%). However, looking only at independents, those who followed news about the Libya investigations disapprove of the administration’s handling of the situation by two-to-one (59% disapprove vs. 29% approve).

The survey finds particularly large partisan differences in attentiveness to specific aspects of the Libya situation. Republicans (47%) are far more likely than Democrats (19%) to say they heard a lot about reports that the U.S. embassy in Libya had requested more security prior to the attacks but did not receive it; about a third of independents (32%) heard a lot about this.

And 41% of Republicans say they heard a lot about incorrect statements by the administration that there were protests outside the embassy at the time of the attacks; that compares with just 17% of Democrats and 28% of independents.

More Want to Get Tougher on China

Since last year, the public’s priorities have shifted when it comes to economic and trade policy toward China. Currently, 49% say it is more important to get tougher with China on economic issues, while 42% say it is more important to build a stronger relationship with China on economic issues. In March 2011, more favored building stronger economic ties (53%) than getting tougher with China (40%).

Independents and Republicans now are much more supportive of getting tougher with China than they were a year and a half ago. Nearly half of independents (47%) now say it is more important to get tougher with China on economic issues, up from just 30% in March 2011. The percentage of Republicans favoring a tougher stance has increased by 11 points (from 54% to 65%) over this period.

There has been less change in opinions among Democrats, and more Democrats continue to prioritize building stronger economic relations with China (53%) over getting tough with China (39%).

This partisan divide is reflected in the vastly different views of Obama and Romney voters. By 51% to 42%, Obama voters favor building a stronger economic relationship with China. By contrast, Romney voters say it is more important to get tough with China on economic issues, by 67% to 26%.

China Concerns: Economics Trump Security Issues

A survey earlier this year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that far more Americans are concerned about economic issues than security issues in U.S.-China relations. (For more, see “U.S. Public, Experts Differ on China Policies,” Sept. 18, 2012.)

Fully 78% said the large amount of American debt held by China is a very serious problem for the United States, while 71% said the loss of U.S. jobs to China is a very serious problem. About six-in-ten (61%) viewed the U.S. trade deficit with China as a very serious problem.

Fewer Americans (49%) viewed China’s growing military power as a very serious problem for the United States. Comparable percentages were highly concerned about cyber attacks from China (50% very serious problem), China’s impact on the global environment (50%), and China’s human rights policies (48%).

Despite partisan differences over the seriousness of some of these issues, substantial percentages of Republicans, Democrats and independents viewed the large amount of U.S. debt held by China and the loss of U.S. jobs to China as very serious problems for the United States.

More Republicans (71%) and independents (66%) than Democrats (54%) said the U.S. trade deficit with China is a very serious problem. About half of Democrats (54%) and independents (53%) viewed China’s impact on the global environment as very serious, compared with 41% of Republicans.

Consistent Support for Firm Stance Against Iran

Since 2009, the public has maintained that it is more important to take a strong stand against Iran’s nuclear program than to avoid a military conflict with Iran. In the current survey,

56% say it is more important to take a firm stand against Iranian actions, while just 35% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran.

There are wide partisan and ideological differences in priorities for dealing with Iran. Fully 84% of conservative Republicans favor taking a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program. Fewer than half as many liberal Democrats (38%) agree. There also is a sizable age gap in these opinions. Just 44% of those younger than 30 favor taking a strong stand against Iran; clear majorities in older age categories support a firm stance.

Among registered voters, 78% of those who support Romney say it is more important to take a firm stand against Iran; just 17% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran. Obama supporters are divided – 48% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict, while 43% say it is more important to take a firm stand against Iran.

Deep Partisan Divide over Israel

Overall, Americans are split in their views about the level of U.S. support for Israel. While a 41% plurality say that the level of American support for Israel is about right, 22% say the U.S. is too supportive, and about as many (25%) say it is not supportive enough.

Views on U.S. support for Israel are deeply divided along partisan lines. Nearly half (46%) of Republicans say the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel, compared with just 9% of Democrats and 24% of independents.

Majority Support for Quick Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan

As was the case earlier in the year, six-in-ten Americans (60%) now say U.S. troops should be removed from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Just 35% currently say troops should remain in the country until the situation there has stabilized.

By more than three-to-one, Democrats say U.S. troops should be removed as soon as possible (73%), rather than remain in Afghanistan until the situation stabilizes (22%). A smaller majority of independents supports a quick withdrawal (58% vs. 38% remain until stable). Republicans are evenly divided on this question: 48% say the troops should be removed as soon as possible, and an identical proportion says they should remain in place. These partisan differences are little changed from the spring.

Most Democrats (66%) say Barack Obama is handling the removal of troops from Afghanistan about right, as do 46% of independents (33% say he is not removing U.S. troops quickly enough, 14% say he is removing them too quickly).

Just 25% of Republicans believe Obama is removing troops from Afghanistan at the right pace. Instead, 42% of Republicans believe he is removing troops too quickly, while 25% say he is removing them too slowly.

Cite this publication: “On Eve of Foreign Debate, Growing Pessimism about Arab Spring Aftermath.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (October 18, 2012) http://www.people-press.org/2012/10/18/on-eve-of-foreign-debate-growing-pessimism-about-arab-spring-aftermath/, accessed on July 22, 2014.