Once decidedly hawkish, Republicans have grown more divided over whether to leave Afghanistan, according to a new poll
released Friday that also shows Democrats overwhelmingly agree with President Obama’s timetable for exiting the war.
Just 2 percent of Democrats polled said that Obama was pulling troops out of Afghanistan “too quickly,” and a significant majority of respondents from the left firmly opposed his committed war policy -- a position backed by NATO -- of removing combat troops over a two-year period while Afghan forces receive more training.
Americans overall showed little patience for sticking out the Afghan training mission. Even Republicans are now evenly divided at 48 percent over whether the United States should keep troops in Afghanistan “until the situation has stabilized” or remove them “as soon as possible,” according to the survey results.
For Democrats, there is no such conflict: 73 percent of respondents said that the president should pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan right away, while just 22 percent favored holding out for stability. Independents polled echoed Democrat sentiments, at 58 percent and 38 percent, respectively.
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’s poll release comes three days before the final presidential debate between Obama and Mitt Romney, which will focus on foreign policy.
“The Democrats have been always less supportive of our involvement in Iraq. It’s not surprising that there would be so few who would say [Obama’s] moving too quickly,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, on Friday.
“I mean, what’s really interesting is that the Republicans are equally bearish about the course in Afghanistan, yet divided over whether we should leave. There are more Republicans these days who say we should get out quickly than there had been. But still, it is an issue among Republicans; it’s not an issue among Democrats, it’s not an issue among Independents.”
The American public is also showing less interest in foreign policy issues of any kind in years, Kohut argued.
“Even though Americans continue to think the United States should play a global leadership role … the public is decidedly more isolationist,” he said. “A lot of the fall-away obviously has to do with lessons learned about terrorism as a national security threat.”
The number of people now saying the United States should pay more attention to domestic issues than foreign ones has jumped to 45 percent, the highest polling number for that question since the end of the Cold War, Kohut said.
Earlier this year, when asked to name "the most important problem facing the nation," which is a classic polling question, just 7 percent of those surveyed “volunteered any foreign issue,” Kohut said, including the war in Afghanistan. In 2004, that number was percent; in July 2008, it was 25 percent.
On the politically hot issue of Libya, Pew found only 28 percent of the public was following the Benghazi attack investigations, and was evenly divided on party lines over Obama's handling of them. The survey was conducted two weeks ago, on October 4-7, between the first two presidential debates.
“The partisan gap is so wide: 68 percent of Democrats approve of the administration’s handling and 73 percent of Republicans disapprove,” Kohut said.
Though Americans consider Libya and Syria important issues, they balk at America’s responsibility to get involved. Yet on Iran, the question of “taking a firm stand against Iranian actions” received 56 percent support to just 35 percent preferring to “avoid a military conflict with Iran.” One reason, Kohut said, could be that the public might be concerned about a prolonged conflict if the United States jumped into Syria, as compared to a perception that more targeted military strikes would be used against Iran.
But Iran also sharply divided Americans by party lines. “Fully 84 percent of conservative Republicans favor taking a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program. Fewer than half as many liberal Democrats (38%) agree,” reads the Pew report.
There’s also a large age gap over military intervention with Iran. Roughly half of the respondents under age 29 -- but just 24 percent of those over 65 -- chose to “avoid military conflict” with Iran.
On China, Romney appears to have gained traction on economic issues. The public has grown, Kohut said, “much more inclined to get tough” on trade policies.
“People are concerned about China. Again, given that concern, the public does not look at the Chinese as our enemy,” Kohut said.
“Trade policy was the one foreign policy issue which voters clearly prefer Mitt Romney over Obama -- by a 49 to 45 percent margin,” said Kohut.