Disillusionment with the Iraq war has ushered in a rise in isolationist sentiment comparable to that of the mid-1970s following the Vietnam war. Pew surveys have found as many as four in 10 Americans saying the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”I've noted in a couple of recent posts that progress in Iraq is likely to help Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain (see here and here).
This is a significantly higher percentage of people than subscribed to this view at the beginning of the decade. A rise in isolationism has signaled a diminished public appetite for the assertive national security policy of the Bush years and, in general, a less internationalist outlook. For example, in the summer of 2006, polls found majorities of Americans saying the United States was not responsible for resolving the conflict between Israel and other countries in the Middle East during the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
American public opinion is also extraordinarily partisan. Consider, Iraq. It remains number one on the public’s foreign policy issue agenda, yet there is hardly a consensus as to what to do next. While a late February Pew poll found a continuing majority of respondents (54 percent) saying the war was a mistake, opinions were evenly divided about how and when to extract United States forces.
About half of those surveyed (49 percent) said they favored bringing troops home as soon as possible, but most (33 percent) favored gradual withdrawal over the next year or two, rather than immediate withdrawal. Similarly, just under half (47 percent) said that the United States should keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. But those who wanted to “stay the course” were divided too, with 30 percent saying that no timetable should be set and 16 percent favoring a timetable.
What the candidates say about Iraq in the general election will be further tested by the huge partisan gap in responses: a 54-percentage-point divide between Democrats and Republicans about keeping troops in Iraq.
With rising concerns about the economy and jobs in particular, trade is a prime example of a tricky issue for the candidates, let alone the next president. While most Americans continue to think that global trade is a good thing, the number feeling this way is sharply lower than it was in the past. Just 59 percent of Americans say trade with other countries is having a good effect on the United States, down sharply from 78 percent in 2002.
Trade is a tougher challenge for John McCain than it is for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama because a key element in the Republican base — the business class — remains heavily pro-trade. This may explain why, as of this writing, Senator McCain’s official web site does not name trade as one of the 15 issues “of focus.”
While the American public is divided on Iraq, and increasingly wary about trade, it also remains divided on the so-called war on terrorism. A narrow majority (52 percent) continues to say it is right for the government to monitor the communications of suspected terrorists without first getting court permission; 44 percent say this is wrong.
The use of torture is a similarly divisive issue, with about half saying it can be justified often or sometimes when used against suspected terrorists to gain important information. A modest majority (52 percent) believes that the detainees the United States is holding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are being treated fairly.
But again there is a wide partisan divide on these issues. Nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats believe it is right for the government to conduct surveillance of suspected terrorists without court permission (74 percent versus 39 percent). The partisan differences in the treatment of Guantanamo detainees are nearly identical: 73 percent of Republicans say the government’s policies toward detainees are fair, compared with 39 percent of Democrats.
Obviously, on these — and just about all other foreign policy questions — Senator McCain and his Democratic opponent will be confronted with the daunting task of appealing not only to their bases, but also to independents, who have decidedly different opinions about these issues. And as we have already seen, both campaigns will be drawn into foreign policy, nonetheless, because Senator McCain will run on his experience and Senators Clinton and Obama will attempt to tie him to President Bush’s record. In turn, each side will work hard to show that the opposition’s way of thinking about foreign policy is out of touch with a moderate point of view.
Reading through Kohut's essay, there appears to be less isolationist sentiment than one might think. On trade, sure, job losses have created pressures among voters on the left and right to realign America's trade agreements to protect American jobs.
But an in ward turn in foreign policy on the Iraq and the war on terrorism is less pronounced. And for all the talk of which candidate is seen as best on international experience McCain holds his own against either potential Democratic opponent.
The Wall Street Journal 's new survey provides some support. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said John McCain has the right approach on Iraq, compared to 30 and 27 for Clinton and Obama respectively. McCain plans to continue the U.S. troop deployment for some duration, so for all the talk of isolationism, there's real evidence that Americans are committed to seeing victory through in Iraq, a priority of GOP foreign policy.