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Foreign Policy Issues Dominate US Mid-Term Elections


Mid-term election campaigns in the United States are usually dominated by so-called bread and butter issues - things like jobs, health care and the economy in general. But there are indications that these concerns are being overshadowed by growing public worries over U.S. foreign policy.

Former House of Representatives Speaker Tip O'Neill once famously said, "all politics is local," in reference to how citizens are more passionate about and tend to vote for issues that are directly related to their own lives.

This outlook has been the decisive factor in the recent elections, especially mid-term elections that don't include a presidential ballot. But this year, things are shaping up to be different. By many accounts, American voters are very concerned about foreign affairs.

"It seems quite unusual for a mid-term election, for foreign policy to have this much of an impact. And it seems to be unprecedented," said Ohio State University political science professor John Mueller.

He thinks the two main foreign policy issues that threaten to overshadow all else are the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the so-called global war on terror.

"Basically, what happens is you've got sort of two wars going on," he added. "One is sort of like World War II, which is the so-called war on terror, and support for that is unlikely to wane, since this seems to be a direct attack on the United States, and related to that. The other is more like a war in Vietnam, or the war in Korea, which would be the war in Iraq. And so, in that case, as costs go up, you'd expect support for it to go down."

The Democratic party has been critical of the Bush administration for the Iraq war, and key Democrats have called for the upcoming elections to be a referendum on the war. At the same time, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic party's presidential candidate in 2004, recently told Fox News Sunday the Iraq war is also having widespread negative effects on other areas of U.S. foreign policy.

"The problem with Iraq is that it has diminished our hand and reduced our ability to be able to deal with Iran and North Korea," said Mr. Kerry. "They're related. One of the reasons North Korea can misbehave the way it is today, is because the U.S. has lost its leverage, lost its credibility, and doesn't have the capacity to bring countries together in the way that it used to."

Public opinion polls show that Americans are increasingly concerned about a negative U.S. image around the world. The president of the non-partisan research group, Public Agenda, Ruth Wooden, says most of the 1,000 Americans polled in September do not approve of the current direction in which the United States is heading.

"Five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we have eight in 10 Americans who say the world is becoming more dangerous for Americans. Six in 10 say the nation's foreign policy is on the wrong track," she said.

The top foreign policy issue for the Bush administration has been the Iraq war. President Bush has justified the fighting there to Americans by saying winning in Iraq is crucial for U.S. security.

"The stakes are high," he said. "As a matter of fact, they couldn't be higher. If we were to abandon that country before the Iraqis can defend their young democracy, the terrorists would take control of Iraq and establish a new safe haven from which to launch new attacks on America."

Meantime, public dissatisfaction over the Iraq war is expected to result in gains for the opposition Democratic party in Congress. Kurt Campbell, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts that this, in turn, will lead to a much more assertive legislature.

"It won't be, 'oh, that's fine. You go about your business on Iraq, just let us know how it's going," he said. "Or, tell us about North Korea when you're done with the negotiations.' We're going to have a much more active, much more powerful - not necessarily powerful, but much more cacophonous and probably demanding set of voices on Capitol Hill."

Ohio State University's Professor Mueller says public opinion polls he has seen show that this year, nothing else has captured the attention of American voters in quite the same way as the Iraq war.

"Basically, the North Korean thing, the rise of China and some of the other ones, global warming, for that matter, don't seem to have exercised people very much, one way or the other. Even the Israeli-Lebanon thing, seems to have faded into insignificance, considerably," he noted.

When then governor Bill Clinton successfully ran for president in 1992, his campaign focused on addressing domestic economic issues. This year, though, despite concrete evidence of economic improvements at home, many American voters are also taking into consideration events thousands of kilometers away.