- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
This year’s presidential election has featured a long-running feud about which countries represent America’s most dangerous foes (Iran? Russia? China?) and most treasured allies (Great Britain? Israel?) — and how to characterize nations that occupy the murky middle ground between these two extremes.
On Thursday, the nonpartisan Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) released a poll that infuses some data into the debate, and the findings are particularly relevant in light of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s U.N. speech yesterday on red lines for Iran’s nuclear program.
We know from several recent surveys that many Americans believe Iran poses a grave danger to the United States (a CNN/ORC poll in April, for example, found that concern about Iran today is more widespread than concern about the Soviet Union in 1985). But most of these surveys have asked respondents to assess the severity of the Iranian threat (in the case of the CNN/ORC poll, alongside the threats posed by North Korea, Russia, and Syria).
FPI took a different approach, asking participants an open-ended question: "If you had to single out one country, which country do you think presents the most danger to American national security interests today?" The results are unequivocal. Forty-five percent of respondents selected Iran. China, the distant runner-up, clocked in at 8 percent, with Afghanistan right behind at 6 percent (Russia, which Mitt Romney once called "America’s number one geopolitical foe," mustered a mere 1 percent). More than 60 percent of respondents supported preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons even if that meant using U.S. military force — a finding that tracks with previous surveys. When it comes to America’s geopolitical enemies, Iran and its nuclear program are clearly top of mind.
Even with these results, however, it’s unclear how seriously Americans take threats from other nations these days. When FPI asked participants what represented the "largest threat to American national security interests today," for example, only 3.5 percent chose Iran — well behind "terrorists" (17 percent), "Barack Obama/admin" (8 percent), and several other answers. Yes, you read that right: more respondents selected Obama than Iran.
The survey contains lots of other interesting findings. In another open-ended question about "America’s best ally," 54 percent of respondents mentioned Great Britain and 16 percent cited Israel. Those who feel the country is headed in the wrong direction tended to have an unfavorable view of China, suggesting, in part, that concern about American decline goes hand-in-hand with wariness about China (it may also simply mean that those who are worried about China also oppose Obama). And nearly half of respondents view Greece favorably, even though Romney has used the country as a punching bag on the campaign trail (typical sound bite: "I think you’re going to see America on the road to Greece unless we change course"). The poll is worth checking out in full here.