Voters Worried About America’s Global Image

Times Staff Writer

For the first time since the height of the Vietnam War, America’s relations with the world loom as the most important issue for voters in the run-up to the November presidential election, according to a poll released Wednesday.

Although the survey found that supporters of President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry were sharply divided in their views on a range of foreign policy issues, there was no indication either candidate enjoyed a significant advantage.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 9, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Foreign policy survey -- An Aug. 19 article in Section A about a survey on public attitudes toward foreign policy issues conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press stated that 15% of respondents said the use of torture in the questioning of suspected terrorists to gain important information was justified on rare occasions. The correct figure was 21%.

“There’s good news for both and also warning signs for both,” said James Lindsay, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.


The survey, conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in association with the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that eroding voter support for the war in Iraq and a significant level of dissatisfaction with the Bush administration’s overall conduct of foreign policy could hurt the president in November.

However, Bush scored far better on his separate handling of the war on terrorism -- an issue judged by voters as more important than either the Iraq war or general foreign policy.

Although the Bush administration has consistently tried to link Iraq with the war on terrorism, the Pew survey indicated voters see them separately.

“What surprised me most [about the survey] is just how clearly we can see these two counter-patterns -- success in the war on terror and disappointment with the war in Iraq,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center.

Some involved in the survey said data suggested Bush’s strength on the terrorism issue could be enough to compensate for his weaknesses elsewhere.

“Without the war on terror, Kerry would be far ahead,” said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy at the council and an advisor for the survey.

Offering encouragement for Democrats, the poll found evidence that more Americans than ever before were “acutely aware of -- and worried about -- the loss of international respect for the United States,” an issue that would seem to play into Kerry’s campaign pledge to restore America’s global image.

The data also showed that a sizable majority of swing voters shared the attitudes of Kerry supporters on the issue.

Lindsay, the council’s vice president, said weakening support for the president’s handling of the war in Iraq posed broader electoral dangers to Bush, raising questions about his leadership on other issues.

Lindsay argued that this already was happening on perceptions of Bush’s handling of the economy and on his overall management of foreign policy.

The poll found that a dwindling majority of voters still believed going to war in Iraq was the right decision but that a similarly narrow majority -- 52% -- disapproved of the way Bush was handling the conflict.

At the height of combat operations in March 2003, 77% approved of how the president was handling the war, the survey said.

Figures also indicated that 44% of voters believed the Iraqi invasion hurt rather than helped the United States in the war on terrorism.

After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, 22% of those questioned held that view.

On a variety of other issues, the survey reflected deep and growing divisions between Republicans and Democrats, offering additional evidence of a highly polarized electorate.

The most dramatic differences occurred in views on America’s global standing, with 80% of Democratic voters and three-quarters of independents saying the U.S. was less respected today than in the past, while less than half of the Republicans surveyed shared that sentiment.

In one of the more provocative results, the survey found that a majority believed that the use of torture against suspected terrorists could be justifiable, although 15% said such tactics should be used rarely.

“People see someone who’s trying to prepare terrorist weapons of mass destruction as someone who is already breaking worse laws than torture,” Mead said.