Voice of a Superpower

The 2004 U.S. presidential election may be the first in decades to center on the candidates' foreign-policy views. So what do most Americans really think about Iraq, terrorism, North Korea, and free trade? Herewith an "interview" with the American people, with each answer reflecting majority positions in recent opinion polls. Americans' surprising preferences offer insight into what voters want from their next president.

FOREIGN POLICY: How did you feel about going to war with Iraq?

FOREIGN POLICY: How did you feel about going to war with Iraq?

John/Jane Q. Public: It’s complicated. When President George W. Bush said that Saddam Hussein was making weapons of mass destruction and might give them to terrorists, I found that argument pretty convincing. So I was all for trying to get into Iraq to find out if Saddam had those weapons, and to take them away from him if he did.

FP: So did you think immediate action was necessary?

JP: Not really. I thought we could take time to build support at the United Nations. Besides, we had plenty else to worry about, like al Qaeda. And once the U.N. inspectors were in Iraq, it seemed like we should give them a chance — not that I was all that optimistic that they were going to find the weapons. But Saddam was contained, so I thought we should keep trying to find some consensus at the United Nations. 

FP: Why was it so important to get U.N. support?

JP: I just didn’t think we should suddenly go in there on our own. The United States already plays the role of the world’s policeman more than it should. And I’m torn over whether we have the right to march in and overthrow a government, even if it is trying to build nuclear weapons. 

FP: Does the United Nations have the right to intervene like that?

JP: Yes, definitely. 

FP: What if a country poses an imminent threat to the United States? Is unilateral action then justified?

JP: Well yes, I mean, if it’s in self-defense and they are about to attack. But it should be pretty clear cut. 

FP: Did you think that Iraq posed such an imminent threat?

JP: Probably not.

FP: Do you think the Bush administration intentionally exaggerated the evidence to build support for the war?

JP: Yes, though I think the administration believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But maybe Bush was so determined to get Saddam that it didn’t much matter to him if it was true. If the CIA had told him that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was not involved with al Qaeda, I still think Bush would have wanted to go to war anyhow. 

FP: What do you think about the argument that the war was justified because Saddam was a dictator violating the rights of Iraq’s people?

JP: I don’t really think the United States has the right to do that kind of thing. We still need U.N. approval, unless it is something really large-scale and extreme — like genocide.

FP: Do you think what Hussein was doing reached that level?

JP: Well, it was pretty bad, but no, not genocide. There are probably other regimes in the world right now that are as bad as Saddam’s. 

FP: So you think war was the wrong decision?

JP: No. I think Saddam probably did have weapons of mass destruction, and I do think he was probably working with al Qaeda. And though he is not the only threat to the United States, it is better for U.S. security to have him out of there. Overall, he was a really bad guy. So, no, it was not a wrong decision.

FP: So it was the right decision?

JP: Well, sort of — I just don’t know if it was the best decision. Maybe if we had taken more time and gotten more countries involved through the United Nations, the brunt of this thing would not be falling on our shoulders. The war itself was simple, but this occupation is tough. I didn’t like it when Bush said he wanted $87 billion dollars for Iraq. And all these casualties…

FP: So are you thinking you might want to pull out?

JP: Oh no, we can’t do that. Whether or not it was a good idea to go in, we still need to stay the course.

FP: How did you feel about the capture of Hussein?

JP: That was great. It made me feel better about how Bush was handling the situation in Iraq. But personally, capturing Saddam didn’t make me feel safer.

FP: What do you want to do at this point?

JP: I would like to see this whole thing put under the United Nations. Let’s not have the United States out front and being shot at every day.

FP: But what if that means the United States must let other countries be involved in making key decisions?

JP: What’s the problem with that?

FP: So you still feel good about the United Nations, even after the U.N. Security Council did not support the United States going to war in Iraq?

JP: I was disappointed that we did not reach consensus there. But I’m certainly not giving up on the United Nations. I just want it to do a better job. In fact, I would like to see it doing more things. We cannot really withdraw from the world, and I don’t want the United States to have so much of the responsibility for keeping things in order. What other option is there?


FP: Okay, let’s talk about the war on terrorism and al Qaeda.

JP: Yes, those are more important than Iraq.

FP: How do you think the president is handling the war on terrorism?

JP: Pretty well. He’s a strong leader and seems determined. Right after the September 11 attacks in 2001, I thought he was doing very well. I’m not as enthusiastic now, but he is still doing well.

FP: How did you feel about the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan?

JP: That was completely clear. We were attacked; we had to go after al Qaeda. On top of that, we had the United Nations and many other countries behind us.

FP: So that was successful?

JP: Well, we still haven’t captured bin Laden.

FP: Overall, do you feel safer as a result of the government’s efforts in the war on terrorism?

JP: I can’t really say that I do. Maybe a little.

FP: Does the fact that no attacks have occurred on U.S. soil since September 11 mean that the Bush adminstration’s efforts have worked?

JP: Not really.

FP: Overall, do you think Bush is taking the right approach?

JP: I think he probably needs to use more diplomatic methods. Don’t get me wrong — I realize this game is rough. We should try to find the terrorists. And if we do, we should kill them. But overall, I think Bush tends to be assertive rather than cooperative.

FP: Do you think most people in the Islamic world share the feelings that al Qaeda has toward the United States?

JP: Yes, most of them do have some of those negative feelings toward the United States, which makes it easier for al Qaeda to recruit new members. But I don’t think most Muslims approve of al Qaeda’s terrorist methods.

FP: Do you like Bush’s idea of trying to promote democracy in the Middle East?

JP: Democracy is a good thing, and it would be great to see it spread. But I’m not sure we should try to impose it on people. Overall, I think people in the Middle East want us to play a less dominant role, and I agree.

FP: Would you reduce the U.S. military presence in the Middle East?

JP: Yes. Now that Iraq is no longer a threat, we should probably pull out of Saudi Arabia. And over the next 5 to 10 years, we should probably reduce our overall military forces in the region.

FP: But aren’t those forces important for fighting the war on terrorism?

JP: Actually, I think they increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks.


FP: Let’s talk about the domestic front of the war on terrorism. How do you feel about the creation of the Department of Homeland Security?

JP: I guess it is doing a fine job, but I am not sure that putting all those efforts into a single agency really adds anything or if it just creates more bureaucracy.

FP: Shortly after the terrorist attacks, the U.S. Congress passed new legislation called the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which removes certain limitations on the government’s ability to monitor and detain individuals. How well do you feel you understand that legislation?

JP: Not very well.

FP: Based on what you know, though, would you say that the Patriot Act is a good thing overall?

JP: Basically, yes.

FP: Do you think it is necessary for Americans to be ready to give up some of their civil liberties to more effectively fight terrorism?

JP: Right after September 11, I thought that maybe we did, but now I am more inclined to believe that we don’t. I am certainly not ready to give the government a complete pass. Civil liberties are important to me, even if we are talking about terrorism.

FP: Do you think the government has gone too far in compromising civil liberties?

JP: No. But I am concerned that it might.

FP: Are you aware that U.S. citizens have been detained under suspicion of being involved in a terrorist group?

JP: Yes.

FP: In such cases, should these suspects have the right to an attorney?


FP: And is it your impression that they do have such a right?

JP: Yes, of course. Don’t they?


FP: Are you concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program?

JP: Yes. North Korea is the country that poses the biggest threat to us now. It’s very important.

FP: Do you think that seeing the United States overthrow Hussein has given the North Koreans pause?

JP: No, it probably made them more motivated than ever to build nukes. They’re not stupid — they know the United States has never attacked a country with nuclear weapons.

FP: What do you think about some limited use of military force, such as bombing their nuclear facilities?

JP: I don’t think so. Besides, I’m not sure we have the right to do that kind of thing.

FP: What about overthrowing their government?

JP: Definitely not.

FP: What do you think about how the United States has approached North Korea?

JP: We should take a more diplomatic route, rather than trying to intimidate them by implying we might attack. I mean, isn’t their fear that we would attack them exactly what got them all riled up in the first place?

FP: Are you saying that the Bush administration is not doing all that it can to achieve a diplomatic solution?

JP: Maybe it could be doing more.

FP: Some people say that engaging in talks would just be an attempt at reviving the failed 1994 agreement, whereby, in exchange for aid, North Korea agreed to stop its nuclear weapons program and allow in inspectors.

JP: (Shrugs) I still think we need to try to get it back on track. We don’t really have the option of going to war, so what are you going to do?

FP: But it was North Korea that violated the agreement by restarting its nuclear weapons program. Some people argue that talking with North Korea would be submitting to blackmail.

JP: I don’t find that argument convincing. I just think that diplomacy holds out the best hope.

FP: What if that approach doesn’t work?

JP: Well, maybe then we should take some steps in a military direction — I’m not sure. Besides, if the South Koreans don’t want us to do that, then I’m not prepared to just plow ahead. After all, they are the ones that would suffer the brunt of any war.

FP: But if the United States were to attack North Korea, would you be supportive then?

JP: Well, I generally feel that you should back the commander in chief even when you disagree. But if it were part of a U.N. operation, then I would strongly support it.

FP: Would you support establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea?

JP: Of course. Haven’t we already done that?

FP: Would you support a deal in which the United States makes a formal declaration that it will not attack North Korea if it gives up its nuclear weapons program?

JP: Sure. Why not?

FP: Do you think such a deal would keep the North Koreans from pursuing nuclear weapons?

JP: I don’t know. But why not try it?

FP: What about withholding food aid so as to put more pressure on them?

JP: No, I don’t think that when there are starving North Koreans we should use food as a political weapon. What their government is doing is not their fault.

FP: What about providing aid in exchange for North Korea stopping its nuclear weapons program?

JP: I would support that. I think there is a good chance that the real reason they are doing this is to get aid.

FP: Does that mean you are confident that giving aid will stop them?

JP: No, not really.

FP: How confident are you that this aid really reaches the people who need it?

JP: Not very confident. But I still think we should do it.


FP: Which countries do you consider the United States’ best friends?

JP: Well, I usually feel friendliest toward English-speaking countries such as Britain — I especially like Prime Minister Tony Blair — Canada, and Australia. After those, it would be Japan and some of the European countries.

FP: And what about France and Germany, given what happened with the Iraq war?

JP: I am getting over all that, but not entirely, especially with France.

FP: How do you view U.S. relations with Russia these days?

JP: Things seem pretty friendly, though Russia is not really an ally of ours. I don’t feel Russia has done enough to support us in the war on terrorism.

FP: What about China?

JP: I feel a bit cooler toward China, though our relationship seems reasonably friendly. I am concerned that China may take away our jobs.

FP: How do you feel about Saudi Arabia?

JP: I don’t really trust them. And they have certainly not done enough in the war on terrorism. I see them as part of the problem more than part of the solution.

FP: Do you think the United States should pressure countries like Saudi Arabia to democratize?

JP: Not really.

FP: Do you view Saudi Arabia as an enemy?

JP: No, but we aren’t allies either. I am not sure if we are really even friends. My respect for them has been falling. They seem arrogant and unfriendly.


FP: How do you feel about globalization and international trade?

JP: In principle, I support the whole idea of trade. I just don’t think the U.S. government has been doing enough to help workers who lose their jobs because of trade. And I don’t like the idea that we are buying products made in sweatshops overseas; it’s bad for the workers over there, and it undercuts U.S. workers. I am also concerned that American companies are moving to other countries to avoid U.S. environmental laws. We should make sure these things don’t happen so much.

FP: But some economists fear that such government intervention might slow the growth of trade.

JP: (Feigns horror) God forbid! If it gets slowed down a bit, that’s not such a big deal. There are other things in life as important or more important than trade.

FP: So what do you want to see done?

JP: Most of all, we need to help American workers, and I do not see that happening much. Things have been pretty bad lately, and workers have not been getting much help. A few years ago I was more hopeful that with some time and effort, workers could recover, but now I am more doubtful. It makes the idea of putting up more trade barriers tempting — even though I don’t think they are the best approach.

FP: How do you feel about the United States negotiating new trade agreements?

JP: When we make an agreement to trade more with other countries, we should require that as part of the deal, they do not abuse their workers or harm their environment. I know it might sound like we are being nosy, but things are getting so interconnected that you have to do that kind of thing more often.

FP: How do you feel about the president’s actions on steel tariffs?

JP: Well, I approved of his raising them originally, but I also think he was right to lower them when the World Trade Organization said we should.

FP: Developing countries have complained that U.S. farm subsidies are unfair to farmers in poor nations. Are you willing to eliminate those subsidies?

JP: Yes and no. I am very concerned about small farmers in the United States and I think they should get help in bad years, though not every year. But I don’t think agribusiness should be getting those big subsidies year after year. If we cut those, it would probably reduce the problems for farmers overseas.


FP: On balance, what grade would you give President Bush for his handling of foreign affairs?

JP: I guess I would give him about a C+. There have been times when I would have given him a higher grade — maybe a B — after September 11 and during the war with Iraq.

FP: What about fighting terrorism?

JP: There I would give him a better grade — maybe even a B+.

FP: And what about his approach toward Hussein and Iraq?

JP: During the war I was more positive, but now I would say a C.

FP: Do you generally have confidence that the president will deal wisely with an international crisis?

JP: Generally, I do; I feel increasingly uneasy, though. In general, I tend to feel a bit better about Republicans when it comes to foreign policy. And when I think about how Bush handles the war on terrorism, I lean toward him rather than the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry. When I think about domestic issues, however, I have more confidence in Kerry.

FP: Do you think of Bush as honest?

JP: I have generally thought of him as honest, but lately I am less certain. Sometimes I have doubts about things he says. This situation with Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction has raised some questions in my mind.

FP: Overall, how would you summarize your feelings about the president?

JP: They are mixed. I like that he is a strong leader, but I think he needs to be more cooperative with other countries and not always react like such a top dog.

FP: It sounds like you are giving him a less than satisfactory grade for "plays well with others."

JP: Yes, a president ought to be able to do that, especially when he is the biggest kid on the block. Which is not to say the traits he has don’t come in handy when the going gets tough. I just wish he could blend those qualities.

FP: So that’s what you’ll be looking for come November?

JP: I suppose so. I haven’t really made my choice yet. But I do know what I am looking for.

Steven Kull is director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

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