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The public does not support unilateralism

President Bush has traveled full circle.  In 2000, many harbored grave doubts about the foreign policy aptitude of a one-term governor who, by his own admission, could not find Kosovo on a map.  Heading into Election Day, Al Gore enjoyed a yawning 14-point advantage as the candidate better able to deal with foreign affairs.

President Bush has traveled full circle.  In 2000, many harbored grave doubts about the foreign policy aptitude of a one-term governor who, by his own admission, could not find Kosovo on a map.  Heading into Election Day, Al Gore enjoyed a yawning 14-point advantage as the candidate better able to deal with foreign affairs.

Merely by virtue of holding office on September 11th, as a nation under attack rallied around its president, Bush was transformed into a font of foreign policy wisdom. Through the first half of 2002, 70 percent or more of Americans approved of the way he handled foreign affairs.

Today, with criticism swirling around his handling of Iraq, North Korea, Iran and the Hezbollah War, just 39 percent approve of Bush’s foreign policy.

Much of this disdain is performance based. It is difficult to approve of failure; tough to find something worthy of approval in a policy that has created a disaster in Iraq, alienated our allies and allowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons to North Korea and Iran.

However, public dissatisfaction also arises from a principled indictment of the underlying tenets of the president’s foreign policy. 

Where Bush is an inveterate unilateralist, Americans prefer multilateralism. Where Bush emphasizes force over diplomacy and persuasion, Americans prefer the latter tools whenever feasible. Where Bush abhors admitting mistakes, Americans want him to fess-up to his errors.

A survey we just completed among voters who pay attention to foreign affairs vividly illustrates public disagreement with the President’s policy.

Only 31 percent share Bush’s commitment to unilateralism, believing that it is better for the U.S. to “act on its own because we can act more decisively and effectively in our national interest.” Nearly twice as many (60 percent) prefer to “work through the U.N….”

Americans appreciate the power of multilateralism in confronting terror.  Just 25 percent accept Bush’s view that it is more important “for the U.S. to decide on its own whether and how to hit terrorists and the countries that support them.” Sixty-eight percent put the priority on having other nations “respect us and want to work with us in the war on terror.”

Just 23 percent say it is more important “for terrorists, and countries that sponsor them, to fear our power,” while 70 percent prioritize enhancing our international standing and working with other countries.

Voters most attentive to foreign policy understand that Bush has made us weaker, not stronger. They recognize that, in important measure, our power rests on the strength of our example and the cohesion of our alliances. Nearly half (48 percent), say Bush’s foreign policy has made the U.S. weaker, whereas just 28 percent accept the President’s contention that he has made America stronger. The public believes a positive image of America in the world is a strategic asset in the war on terror, but by 61 percent-15 percent, they maintain that image has deteriorated under Bush.

Voters are sure President Bush has made mistakes abroad and are angry at his refusal to admit it. More believe he is “too stubborn” and “unwilling to compromise” than say he is a “strong leader” or “tough enough to deal with terrorism.”

Thus, by a 16-point margin, Americans who pay attention to foreign affairs want to change the course of Bush’s foreign policy. Only by acknowledging he is changing course can the President begin to restore the public confidence he has lost.

My profession lost one of its greatest practitioners last week, Warren Mitofsky. His formidable intellect and encyclopedic knowledge set a standard to which the rest of us merely aspire. I learned more in five minutes listening to Warren than I could in years of trying on my own. Those privileged to know him are better for his friendship and diminished by his passing.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.