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A Nation of Ostriches and Peacocks

A new Pew poll finds Americans are at record levels of isolationism, although large numbers are unilateralist and a plurality see China as the world's leading economic power.

President Obama clearly didn't factor public opinion into his decision, announced earlier this week, to send 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan. The plan manages to have opposition from every persuasion including the unhappy anti-war base that elected Obama last year as well as Republicans who fault the size of the deployment, the exit strategy and the time it took the president to arrive at it all.

If he did want to know, however, what people are thinking, an in-depth new opinion poll from the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations looks particularly grim: Not only are a plurality of Americans skeptical of success in Afghanistan, they're feeling more isolationist than they have in four decades of the polling.

Forty-nine percent agreed that "the U.S. should mind its own business and let others get along the best they can on their own" — the highest such mark since the quadrennial survey began in 1964 (when 18 percent of those polled agreed with the statement). Unfortunately, there's no apples-to-apples poll with the pre-World War II Depression era when isolationism was also rampant.

That current finding casts a somber backdrop to Obama's trip next week to accept the Nobel Peace Prize; he'll be honored for inroads outside of the U.S. when such engagement is at its lowest priority back home.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, and James Lindsay, director of studies for the CFR, blamed several factors for the spike in isolationism, from the economic crisis to wariness with the Bush-era style of assertive foreign policy.

"That clearly reflects in great part people feeling burned by the last eight years," Lindsay said.

But that's not to say people have embraced Obama's alternative. Unilateralist views are also at an all-time high in the poll, with 44 percent agreeing with a statement that sounds straight out of the Bush Doctrine: "Since the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying too much about whether other countries agree with us or not."

Forty-seven percent (including 72 percent of Republicans) also said Obama is not tough enough in his handling of foreign policy, a sentiment that likely speaks more to conflicts with Iran, North Korea and in the Middle East than with Afghanistan.

The survey contrasted the views of 2,000 adults in the general public with 600 opinion-leaders who are members of the CFR (all were polled in late October and early November, before Obama's Tuesday troop announcement). In one instance, the groups differed widely: 53 percent of the public continue to view China's emerging power as a threat to the United States, while CFR members cast the relationship in much less adversarial terms, with 58 percent saying China will be a more important ally in the future.

Fear among the public may stem from another precedent — for the first time, a plurality of Americans thinks the world's leading economic power is not the U.S., but China.

The survey mines what in some cases look like contradictory impulses: rejecting Bush's foreign policy legacy but supporting unilateralism, urging disengagement while faulting Obama's toughness. What Kohut sees in it all is a sense of uneasiness.

"My takeaway at the end is I think this survey shows both the public and opinion leadership groups are apprehensive and uncertain about America's place in world," Kohut said. "Given the variety of economic and geopolitical challenges to the U.S., I guess that's not unreasonable."

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