Poll: Public, power elite differ in world views

Monday, November 17, 1997

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO .- If you suspect those folks in Washington don’t know what
you think about the world, you might be right. A poll has found
virtually everyone inside the Beltway -the White House. Congress, the
Washington media, the think tanks- believes the American public is
isolationist, anti-United Nations, anti-foreign aid and opposed to a
vigorous U.S. role in the world.

The pollsters then compared the leaders’ view of the public with
what Americans really think, as expressed in a series of recent
polls. These polls showed just the opposite: a nation that is
steadily internationalist, pro-U.N., pro-foreign aid, committed to a
U.S. role in the world and eager to cooperate with other nations in
playing it.

This misunderstanding between the leaders and the led is huge.
For instance, the Washington elite think only 14 percent of the
public wants to strengthen the United Nations, In fact. 83 percent of
those polled say they do .

The elite think 74 percent of all Americans want. The U.S. to
disengage from the world and be more isolationist. The polls show
only 12 percent do.

The elite think only 5 percent of Americans are "basically
supportive" of foreign aid. The actuality: 80 percent surveyed
support foreign aid.

Perceptions have consequences. The Washington elite are the
people who frame and carry out foreign policy. Policymakers,
especially in Congress, have justified cuts in foreign aid and
foreign policy spending, a refusal to pay America’s U.N. dues, a
weakened U.S. role in U.N. peacekeeping and other semi-isolationist
steps on grounds that this is what the public wants.

This new look at the relationship between the views of
policymakers and average Americans comes at a time when the United
States is exerting its global reach in its increasingly tense
showdown with Iraq over international weapons inspections.

Last week, Congress passed a foreign aid bill that deleted
President Clinton’s request for $926 million to cover the United
States back payments to the United Nations’ and then adjourned.
Meanwhile, tbe United Nations and the administration are trying to
cope with the Iraq crisis. On Sunday. Newsweek magazine released a
poll showing a large majority of Americans would support U.S.
military action against Iraq if Baghdad takes action against
Americans or U.S. surveillance planes flying over Iraq.

The survey of elite and public attitudes is contained in a new
report, "The Foreign Policy Gap: How Policymakers Misread the
," issued by the Program on International Policy Attitudes
of the Center for International and Security Studies at the
University of Maryland, College Park.

Officials of the program interviewed members pf the Washington
elite and then compared their findings with broader public opinion
polls carried out by the program and other organizations, including
the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. It also held smaller focus
groups around the country and in-depth interviews in Washington.

From this, the report said, three things became clear: "The
actual steps toward disengagement in the conduct of U.S. foreign
policy, the seemingly widespread view among policymakers that the
American public favors disengagement. and the lack of confirmation
for this view among those who study public opinion."

In Washington, the study said, everybody is wrong, but some
groups are more wrong than others. According to the polls, no one
misunderstands the public as much as its representatives
, the members
of Congress. Next come the staff members who serve those lawmakers,
followed c1osely by journalists who are paid to find out what people