Behind the Numbers

The Not-So-Evil Empire

Is Russia still America's bogeyman?

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Republicans pounced on President Barack Obama this week after he seemed to make discrete assurances to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have more "flexibility" on nuclear defense missile negotiations once the election year is over. Even before House Speaker John Boehner issued a prickly letter today, Republican presidential front runner Mitt Romney criticized Obama for making promises to the president of Russia, calling the country America's "number one geopolitical foe."

Just over two decades ago, many Americans would have agreed with Romney's severe assessment. But the idea that Russia is America's biggest enemy has very little caché with the American public in the 21st century.

In the early 1980s, Americans were pretty vitriolic towards the Soviet Union. In a 1983 Harris poll, fully 93 percent said the U.S.S.R. was unfriendly to the United States or an enemy. In 1990, 32 percent of Americans said Russia (then the Soviet Union) represented the greatest danger to the United States, according to a Pew Research Center survey (then called Times-Mirror). Negative views softened dramatically in the ensuing years, with two-thirds actually saying Russia was friendly to the United States or an ally in 1993. Today, there's virtually no consensus any more that Russia is the bad guy. This year, for instance, a scant 2 percent picked Russia as America's arch-nemesis. Yes, there's a resistance against being too trustful -- fewer than one in five have called Russia an "ally" at any point in time -- but calling Russia America's "number one geopolitical foe" makes Romney seem anachronistic, if not stuck in the Cold War.

In the past couple of years, ratings of Russia have bounced around. They turned sharply negative in a summer 2008 Washington Post-ABC News poll following a highly publicized conflict with Georgia, a former Soviet territory. But positive ratings recovered last year, when six in 10 said Russia was friendly or an ally in a similarly worded CNN survey. Gallup polls track less dramatic changes in recent years, with 50 percent holding favorable views of Russia in their February 2012 poll.

Not surprisingly, older Americans with memories of the Cold War may be less willing to bury the hatchet than their offspring. The May 2011 CNN poll found that 47 percent of those over age 50 thought Russia to be unfriendly toward the United States. By contrast, 70 percent of younger adults saw Russia positively -- more than a 2 to 1 margin.

The end of the Cold War surely played a role in softening attitudes towards Russia in the 1990s, but Americans have also trained their eye on new dangers. In addition to the threat of international terrorism, Iran has surged to become one of America's least-liked nations. Perhaps it's also due to Russia's declining global influence: While most Americans see China as a major economic threat to the U.S., a scant 1 percent in a 2011 Gallup poll predicted that Russia would be the world's leading economic power in 20 years time.

Mitt Romney's assertion that President Obama was "caving" in negotiations with Russia over U.S. security interests may turn out to be a point of attack. And certainly, there's no question that Obama wishes he could take that hot mic slip up back. But with around half of Americans holding positive attitudes towards Russia, negotiations with a friend -- even those overheard in error -- are probably not enough to dent Obama that badly.


Behind the Numbers

Hearts and Minds

As of late 2010, a higher percentage of Afghans than Americans supported the war there. But is that support eroding?

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

It hasn't been a good couple of weeks in Afghanistan. An alleged killing spree by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and widely publicized Quran burnings at Bagram airbase threaten to alienate some of the most ardent supporters of America's efforts in Afghanistan: the Afghan people themselves. It may seem hard to believe, but while Americans long ago said the war's costs outweighed the benefits, many Afghans still remained supportive of the U.S. invasion as of late 2010. If that support is now waning, both Americans and Afghans may be calling for the United States to pack its bags and go.

Nearly three quarters of Afghans in late 2010 said the U.S. invasion was a good thing, according to a Washington Post/ABC News/BBC/ARD face-to-face survey. More than six in 10 supported the presence of U.S. military forces and the majority noticed progress in training Afghans to provide security and halting al Qaeda's progress. Kandahar, the province where Bales allegedly killed 16 civilians before dawn on March 11, was one of the few areas where a majority opposed the initial invasion.

Even then, support for the mission didn't translate into glowing ratings for the United States as a whole. A 56 percent majority held unfavorable views in 2010, the highest in six years of surveys, and a monumental shift from 2005, when more than eight in 10 saw America in a positive light. But even after the drop in popularity, America was seen much more positively than its arch enemy: the Taliban. Nearly nine in 10 gave unfavorable marks to Afghanistan's former leaders, with two-thirds seeing the Taliban "very" unfavorably.

Ratings of the war inside Afghanistan differed starkly from those back in the United States. Six in 10 Americans thought the war was not worth fighting in a December 2010 Washington Post/ABC News poll, identical to where it stands in a Post/ABC poll this month.

Most Americans are eager to get out of the conflict. In the latest survey, 54 percent of Americans think the United States should withdraw military forces -- even if the Afghan army is not adequately trained. President Barack Obama's 2010 announcement of troop withdrawals also got positive reviews. Over half thought he was removing troops along the right timeline in a December 2010 Post/ABC poll, and another 27 percent said he should bring them home sooner.

The once-popular war's appeal has waned, in part due to a nose-dive among its strongest supporters. Since Obama took over stewardship of the war from George W. Bush, Republican support for the war has plummeted -- 74 percent said the war was worth it in 2009, but just 47 percent say so now.

Back in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Bales's alleged murder of 16 civilians, less than a month after soldiers were found to have incinerated several Qurans, may have already taken a major toll on support for the U.S. mission.

Hamid Karzai's strong reaction -- calling for the removal of U.S. troops from rural areas and  broad investigations -- may throw a wrench in diplomatic efforts, but from the public opinion perspective his position is critical. More than eight in 10 Afghans had a favorable view of Karzai in late 2010 -- a level of popularity almost unheard of for an American leader.

Even before news about the killings broke, most Americans believed Afghans were opposed to the U.S. military presence. They weren't -- but they might be now.

Scott Olson/Getty Images