December 17, 2005
Iraq: The War Is Coming Home

By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- There are many costs the United States must pay for blundering into Iraq, and they cannot all be calculated in billions of dollars. Two of them are America's loss of confidence in itself and a drift back to isolationism more profound than before the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Preoccupied with war abroad and growing problems at home, U.S. opinion leaders and the general public are taking a decidedly cautious view of America's place in the world," begins the summary of national surveys taken through last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York.

"Opinion leaders have become less supportive of the United States playing 'a first among equals' role among the world's leading nations. ... As the Iraq war has shaken the global outlook of American influentials, it has led to a revival of isolationist sentiment among the general public."

A striking 42 percent of poll respondents among the general public agreed with this statement: "The United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own."

That is about the highest number in recent decades for the "isolation" index used in national polling -- higher than it was after the war in Vietnam, higher than it was after the end of the Cold War. Among 520 opinion leaders, whose attitudes are traditionally more internationalist than those of the public, the percentage who say they believe America must be the "single world leader" or be "the most assertive of the leading nations" has dropped by 10 to 20 percentage points when compared with polls taken in 2001 -- just before Sept. 11.

(The study counts as "influentials" government officials, foreign affairs experts, military, religious, scientific and news media leaders. I was among those questioned for 30 minutes as part of the "influential" section.)

Among the numbers I found significant was this one: 66 percent of the public respondents answered yes to the question, "Is the U.S. less respected than in the past?" Three-quarters of them cited the war in Iraq as a major factor in their answers. Among the influentials, 87 percent said the war in Iraq was essentially the reason the world is losing respect for the United States. The sharpest break in the answers of the public and the leaders was on the question of whether U.S. support of Israel was a major factor in global discontent with American policy. Thirty-nine percent of the public said yes, but the number in the influential group was 64 percent.

A majority of both the public and influentials, however, do agree that bringing democracy to Iraq is a worthy goal. The problem is that more than two-thirds of both groups believe we will fail in that attempt. On the question of torture, "ordinary" folks and elites separate. The public split evenly on whether the use of torture may sometimes be necessary in questioning terrorist suspects. The influentials overwhelmingly answered no to such questions. The public also supports strict use of visas to keep more foreign students out of the United States. Influentials say current restrictions go too far and are hurting the country.

There were many more interesting results concerning public opinion in the surveys: Support for the United Nations is dropping; only 44 percent see free-trade agreements, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement, as being good for the United States, and 84 percent, statistically just about everyone, agreed with the statement that protection of American jobs should be a major and long-term objective of American policy. Pluralities of both the public and influentials results listed "luck" as the major reason there has not been a major terrorist incident in the country since Sept. 11.

All interesting, but the bottom line, as I read it, is that the most important reason for getting American troops out of Iraq as soon as possible is not what is happening on the ground there but what is happening here at home. Good or bad, successful or a disaster, the war is beginning to tear apart our country.

Copyright 2005 Universal Press Syndicate

Richard Reeves

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