The Fading Freedom Mission

By David S. Broder
Sunday, March 11, 2007

When President Bush, in his second inaugural address, pledged to "support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he seemed to be speaking for the whole country.

But two years later, a disillusioned American public, sobered by the war in Iraq and still fearful of more terrorist attacks here at home, is ready to settle for a less idealistic goal: protecting the United States and its vital interests.

That is the main lesson of a poll that was released to me last week by the leaders of Third Way, a left-leaning Washington think tank (results are available online at

It is something the presidential candidates might well read. The poll was done by a reputable firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, interviewing a sample of 807 registered voters between Jan. 30 and Feb. 4. The challenge the survey presents is a large one.

To be blunt, the Bush prescription for American foreign policy -- an aggressive effort to expand freedom and democracy around the globe -- has lost its credibility. But neither Republicans nor Democrats are widely trusted to construct a new policy.

Two-thirds of political independents -- the swing voters -- agree with the statements that Republicans are too quick to use military force instead of diplomacy and are too stubborn in refusing to negotiate with hostile countries. But by nearly as large a margin, those same independents agree that Democrats are not tough enough to do what is needed to protect America and that they are unwilling to use military force, even when it's necessary for national security.

Overall, independents have moved closer to Democratic positions on foreign policy, meaning that the Republicans' almost-automatic advantage on national security issues may be a thing of the past.

Those doubts leave Americans in a quandary -- and very worried about the future. Matt Bennett, a vice president of Third Way, told me, "Candidates need to recognize Americans have been shaken in their confidence."

The Sept. 11 attacks, more than five years old, remain a vivid threat. Large majorities -- including most Republicans -- reject Vice President Cheney's contention that the absence of a second attack means we are safer. Instead, they say that the threat of terrorism has increased since 2001, and they believe that the war in Iraq has made us less safe, not more.

One victim of that psychology is Americans' belief in the worldwide democratic mission that Bush invoked so powerfully on Jan. 20, 2005. Now, by 58 percent to 36 percent, the voters say that "it is a dangerous illusion to believe America is superior to other nations; we should not be attempting to reshape other nations in light of our values."

By an even greater proportion -- almost 3 to 1 -- they say the main goal of American foreign policy should be to protect the security of the United States and its allies, rather than the promotion of freedom and democracy.

The impact of Iraq can be seen in another question. By 70 percent to 27 percent, they agree with the statement that "sometimes it's better to leave a dictator in charge of a hostile country, if he is contained, rather than risk chaos that we can't control if he is brought down."

Practicality now trumps idealism at every turn. Endorsements of U.S. policy by allies and international organizations are highly valued. By 58 percent to 38 percent, those polled agree with the statement that "if negotiating with countries that support terrorism, like Iran and Syria, will help protect our security interests, the U.S. should consider negotiating with them."

But practicality is far from a complete policy. What people really want is a way of looking at the world and understanding America's part in it -- a narrative that would replace the rejected Bush scenario. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who was a consultant on the poll, remarked to me, "Until now, most of the candidate-posturing has centered on Iraq." But this poll suggests a deeper need. "People are looking for a candidate who suggests a way to defend our essential interests while regaining some of our lost esteem."

Who is up to the task?

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