The Voice of the Public

The following “interview” with the American public is based on a composite of majority or median positions in response to numerous poll questions. Some passages of this interview appeared previously in the September/October 2001 and the May/June 2004 issues of Foreign Policy.

US Role in the World

Q: Rumor has it that in the ‘90s with the end of the Cold War, you were in the mood to withdraw from the world, but all that changed with September 11 and now you are much more ready for the US to use its military power. Are these rumors true?

A: Hmm. Not really. After the Cold War I did not think it was an option for the US to withdraw from the world. We’re so interconnected with the world now it’s not really an option. September 11 did drive that home, though, so whatever lingering ideas I had about whether we could just turn our backs on the world—those pretty much got wiped out.

Q: So you like the way the US is involved in the world?

A: Well, I didn’t say that. Before September 11 I felt that the US played the dominant role—like being the world policeman—more than it should. And I still feel that way now. It seems like we always feel that we have to be out front as the big world leader. I’d like to see that ramped down some. [1]

Q: So it does sound like you want to disengage from the world somewhat.

A: No. I just want to see the US work together with other countries more--have the US do its share in solving problems together with other countries. I don’t like being the Lone Ranger so much. We should work through the UN more.

Q: But since the UN Security Council refused to back the war against Iraq, haven’t you soured on the UN?

A: Well, I was disappointed that the UN failed to come to an agreement on Iraq. But that does not mean I don’t want to keep trying to work through the UN. I do. In fact, I would like to see the UN play an even bigger role in the world than it does now.

Q: Why is it so important to work in these multilateral ways?

A: Well, first of all, I don’t like us having to do the job all by ourselves. I’d rather share the burden. But it’s also that the UN just has the right to do things the US does not necessarily have the right to do. So it’s probably going to work better, because it’s not just the US throwing its weight around.

Q: But didn’t you support the US going to war with Iraq even though it did not have UN approval?

A: Well, before the war I thought we should take time to build support at the United Nations. Once the UN inspectors were in Iraq, it seemed like we should give them a chance. I feel that we were too quick to use military force. But I also felt then and still feel now that if the President decides to use military force, it is important to stand behind him. [2]

Q: Why was it so important to get UN support?

A: I’m not sure we have the right to march in and overthrow a government, even if it is trying to build nuclear weapons. [3]

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

A: Yeah. Definitely. [4]

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

A: Well yeah, I mean if it’s in self-defense and they are about to attack. But it should be pretty clear cut. [5]

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

A: Probably not. [6]

Q: What do you think about the argument that that the war was justified because Saddam was a dictator violating the rights of its people?

A: I don’t really think the United States has the right to do that kind of thing. You still need U.N. approval, unless it is something really large-scale and extreme—like genocide. [7]

Q: Do you think what Saddam was doing reached that level?

A: Well it was pretty bad, but, no, not like genocide. There are probably other governments in the world right now that are as bad as Saddam’s. [8]

Q: So what do you want to see happen now in Iraq?

A: I would like to see this whole thing put under the UN. [9] Let’s not have it be so much the United States out front and being shot at.

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

A: (Shrugs) What’s the big deal with that? [10]

Q: What about humanitarian military intervention and peacekeeping? Do you think the US should participate in those kinds of things?

A: Well that’s kind of complicated. I do think that if things like genocide are happening, or if a lot of people are being killed or driven out of their homes, then the world has to step in and do something about it. And sometimes you’ll have to use military force. So I am basically for this kind of thing. [11]

Q: So what’s the complicated part?

A: Well there are two things that concern me. One is that I am tired of the US always taking the lion’s share of the responsibility for everything. [12] And frankly, if others are not willing to do their part, then sometimes I think we should just hang back until they do. [13]

Q: Is it your impression that the US has contributed more than its share of the troops for peacekeeping operations?

A: Yeah. [14]

Q: What percentage would you estimate that the US has contributed?

A: I’d guess the US has contributed about nearly half of all the troops. Now if the other countries would contribute, say, three-quarters of them, it would be fine with me for the US to contribute something like maybe a quarter. [15]

Q: So what is your other concern?

A: You know, I don’t think we should go into a situation if it is not really going to do any good. I don’t think we should go in just to, you know; make a gesture to show we are good guys and all. I mean, if I felt confident it was going to work, or if the military expressed some confidence that it would work, then, yeah, let’s definitely go for it.[16] But, whenever there has been talk about sending troops in, up in Washington everybody starts screaming and yelling about whether we are just going to get stuck there like we did in Vietnam and that it won’t really do any good in the end and our troops are going to die in vain. Hell, how am I supposed to know if they are right? [17]

Q: Is it a question of not wanting to put US troops in harm’s way unless there is a clear connection to US national interests?

A: I’m not sure what you mean.

Q: Well, do you think that it was important for US national interests to intervene in Bosnia or Kosovo?

A: Hmm, well yeah, I think that if we don’t intervene the problem might spread, and then we could really be sorry.[18] But sometimes you also need to intervene because it is the right thing to do, when horrible things happening to ordinary people, civilians, women and children. [19]

Q: But isn’t the preeminent principle that the US should use its power to make the world be the way that best serves US interests?

A: Well, sure, US interests are important. I just don’t think that that is exactly what we should be focused on in a narrow way. I think we should coordinate with other countries and develop ideas for what works best for everybody. I mean isn’t that what we all learn growing up about how to get along with people? Why should it be different when you are dealing with other countries?[20]