Who Is to Blame for US Foreign Policy?

Americans and the World
Who Is to Blame for US Foreign Policy?

By Courtney C. Radsch

Freelance Journalist - Washington, D.C.


It is a common perception that Americans do not pay enough attention to
foreign policy. US policy makers and experts, as well as the American
public, espouse the opinion that Americans are not well- informed about
international relations.

The midterm congressional election campaigns, following the passing of
September 11's fifth anniversary, have generated a renewed focus on foreign
policy and the Iraq war, bringing to the fore the issue of voters' stances
on such issues.

Among a number of editorials and op-eds, a call was made to the American
public by Time magazine's managing editor, who wrote on 9/11's anniversary
that, as a matter of national security, Americans, as democratic citizens,
must engage in foreign policy making. Richard
Stengle called for a dialogue about "what our foreign policy should be and
what constitutes our national interests and values."

Who Is to Blame?

Stengle argued that the American people bear both the economic and human
costs of such decisions and, therefore, they "should be damn well able to
pass judgment on" the values of our foreign policies.

His concern is shared by others outside the United States, especially in
regions directly affected by US foreign policy.

The people of the Middle East criticize Americans for their lack of interest
in their country's actions abroad. In a region where the Iraq crisis has
been raging since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country - not to mention
other regional problems linked to US policies -
peoplestill often distinguish between the American government and people.
But Americans' constant refrain in support of their representative,
democratically elected governments has made Middle Easterners wonder if the
American people should be held accountable for their leaders' foreign

Others don't blame the American people on the grounds that, inside the
United States, there is minimal discussion by policy makers on US strategies
abroad. "There is a deadly silence on the Middle East," says Dr. James
Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American
Institute (AAI) in Washington D.C. "Either they can't or won't talk about
it, and thus the public doesn't talk about it."

He explains that people don't know how to focus on foreign policy because
the leadership does not provide the wider parameters for debate.

One young American, a law student, also holdsleaders responsible - at least
partially - for the people's ignorance. "Americans tend to insulate
themselves from world events," says Guinevere Jobson, "and our leaders,
instead of encouraging us to look beyond our borders,
give us reason to shut our eyes."

Leaders, Zogby explains, are advised by campaign consultants not to talk
about it, because their powerful constituents do not want them to. "It's a
willed ignorance born of perception that you'll lose support," he says. "I
don't think it's true."

Dr. John Brown, a former foreign service officer and an associate at the
Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, publishes a
daily public diplomacy press and blog review through the University of
Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy. His review of the softer
side of foreign policy places him in a position to track the pulse of
Americans' thinking on foreign policy.

Brown states four primary reasons Americans traditionally have little
interest in foreign policy. First, America is a continent-sized country that
until the "war on terror" felt it could live on its own resources and
prosperity. Second, the media tends to be narcissistic; it focuses on the
United states to an excessive degree. Third, the educational system's
utilitarian focus means that many students do not take classes in
international affairs because they do not think that "knowing about the
outside world is very important." And finally, says Brown, since America is
a nation of immigrants, perhaps the immigrant mentality has discouraged
people from thinking too much about where they came from, which makes them
focus on America instead.

"We're not alone in this; other countries tend to be self-focused," Brown
adds, but in Europe, for example, people are bound to think more about their
neighbors because they are so close, whereas the American heartland is far
away from any other country.

"My impressions as a former FSO [foreign service officer] coming back to the
US were being struck by how little Americans were interested in the outside
world, especially compared to how much interest there is in America."

The Midterm Elections' Effect

With midterm congressional races coming to final campaign mode, the central
focus on the Iraq war in many election campaigns has divided experts about
whether the old stereotype is true: Many observers think that, at least at
the present time, Americans are paying more attention to international

A recent study by theGallup Pollshows that Iraq, national security, and
terrorism have topped the list of issues that the American public wants its
representatives in Washington to focus on.

The midterm elections seem to reflect heightened interest in the outside
world, even if that interest is primarily confined to the areas where
Americans feel insecure, like Iraq. A foreign policy expert at the Brookings
Institute, a think-tank in Washington D.C., says he thinks there is an
unusually high level of public interest in foreign policy at the moment
because of the aftermath of September 11 and the war in Iraq. "This is
pretty good," says Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies.
"This is what it should be at all times."

Pollack, whose book The Threatening Storm argued that the United States
should invade Iraq, says that representatives must make it clear how foreign
policy is directly relevant to daily life, because Americans do not get
enough news, and the news carries relatively little foreign policy
information in any case. "It would be helpful for American democracy if more
attention was paid by the media to foreign policy."

Another expert, Dr. Shoon Murray, says that, despite the lack of available
information, the American people have a general sense of political issues,
especially after September 11 and the war in Iraq. "They're information poor
but they have meaningful beliefs," said the
professor of US foreign policy at the American University in Washington D.C.

Brookings' Pollack agrees: "The foreign policy cognoscenti love to bemoan
how uninformed the American public is, but it isn't as uniformed as they
like to say."

Yet, Zogby still asserts that Americans are aware that they are not
well-informed, and thus oftentimes say they don't know enough to form an
opinion of foreign policy issues, especially in the Middle East. AAI
conducts opinion polling, based on which Zogby has drawn his

However, other polls conducted by World Public Opinion.Org (WPO) reveal that
Americans do think about the values of their foreign policy. OneWPO
pollshowed last spring that if intelligence had indicated Saddam Hussein did
not have nuclear weapons or provide support to Al-Qaeda, more than seventy
percent would not have supported the war. AnotherWPO pollshowed that the
vast majority of Americans support treaties, due process for terrorism
suspects, and limits on torture; thus, while they may not be well-informed
about policies, they nonetheless seem to have strong opinions about what
values they believe should inform the policies taken.

The American people may not always pay attention to the countries outside
their vast borders until they feel that policies abroad directly impact
their life at home. The current debates about the Iraq war, terrorism, and
torture seem to indicate that the public is thinking about America's role
abroad and the values of their foreign policy. The challenge, however, is to
maintain this interest after the elections.


Courtney C. Radsch is a freelance journalist and doctoral candidate whose
research focuses on the Arab media. For more information about Radsch, visit
her website. Also, her blog can be found at ARABISTO.COM.