Posted on January 05, 1998 in Washington Watch

The United States remains the world’s only superpower with responsibilities and interests from south Asia to the Middle East, from Russia to Bosnia and from Africa to Central and South America. However, surveys of a number of year-end polls show Americans have turned inward, demonstrating little or no concern with most foreign policy issues.

Never before has the world been so interdependent, connected by the Internet, trade and global capital markets. Yet, never before have Americans demonstrated such a lack of concern for world developments.

Americans are more satisfied and complacent than at any time in this century. The Pew Research Center, which has been polling public satisfaction since the 1960s, shows that 47% of Americans are highly contented with their lives. This represents an increase of 20% from a low of 27% satisfaction in the Bush era. Other polls show an equal or better amount saying that they are now economically better off than at any other time.

Consequently, the public’s interest, not only in foreign affairs but also in political issues in general, has diminished, with less than 19% of Americans indicating that they closely follow any news of any type. In fact, the only story followed by more than one-half of the U.S. in 1997, was the death of Princess Diana.

Of the top ten stories that grabbed the public’s attention in 1997, none were domestic policy questions. Only one was a foreign policy issue, that being the confrontation with Iraq over UN inspections. Most significant is the fact that the Iraq story was the only foreign policy issue listed among the top 40 stories of the year.

The other top ten stories after the death of the Princess were mostly of a personal interest nature, such as the birth of septuplets in Iowa, the hamburger meat recall, or tragedies like the devastation of the northwest of the United States by floods and the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult members. Also among the most closely followed stagers of the year were a number of court trials: O.J. Simpson, the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the British au pair accused of murder.

It is interesting to note that domestic policy questions only ranked among the second group of ten top stories. Moreover, all of these involved issues that affect the personal financial well being of Americans: social security reform (# 13), reform of the tax system (# 16) and the debate over Medicare / healthcare reform (# 19).

Analysts have proposed a number of reasons for the decided shift in the public’s thinking, principle among them is the end of the Cold War. The dramatic end of the Soviet Union not only removed a competing threat from the world scene, but it reduced the importance, in the minds of Americans, of regional conflicts which now have become viewed as local affairs that no longer threaten to provoke world conflict.

At the same time, Americans are beneficiaries today of a rapidly expanding economy that is creating millions of new jobs and greater economic security. Some Americans are, in fact, negatively impacted by the shifts in the U.S. economy, but with 60% of all Americans saying that they were better off in 1997, than in the previous year, it is clear that a degree of complacency has set in.

Americans have continued to lose faith in politics and politicians. Not only do fewer Americans follow the news; fewer vote and fewer participate in elections, seeing them as partisan games dominated by bigger and bigger money interests. In addition, Americans have become increasingly skeptical about the honesty of politicians. They have promised change, but have not delivered. They attack one another, reducing the public’s belief in both parties and in the political process as a whole.

All these trends point to a disturbing reality for those of us concerned about the Middle East and U.S.-Arab relations. It is true that, when asked, most Americans support a balanced approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process and favor the creation of a Palestinian state. However, at the same time, the large majority of Americans do not follow issues in the Middle East, except when the United States is directly involved, as in the case of Iraq. For example, the tension over Hebron and the bombings in Jerusalem were the only other Middle East stores closely followed by Americans in 1997. However, they were only followed by 12% of the public and ranked # 58 and # 60 among those stories closely watched this year.

Because of this lack of overall public interest and investment in these vital issues of concern, small but powerful ideological and well-organized groups wield undue influence in the shaping of public policy.

It is for this reason that a group of Republican congressmen could write to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month, pledging their “support for your government in its efforts to resist pressures to cede even larger portions of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority.” They urged Netanyahu “not to be swayed by the empty threats” from the Clinton Administration, pledging that Congress will back him in any conflict.

The only reason that members of Congress would display such brazenness is that they are convinced that most Americans will never know of their actions and believe that their personal political interests are served by such behavior.

The factors that may contribute to changing this disturbing situation in 1998 are: continued Arab resistance to Netanyahu’s intransigence, which presents U.S. policymakers with a challenge to which they must respond; the growing and increasingly public division within the U.S. Jewish community, which is pushing both the Administration and some in Congress to apply pressure on the Netanyahu government; and the efforts of Arab Americans to challenge the Administration, Congress and public opinion about the just requirements for Middle East peace.

Should Netanyahu continue to resist implementation of the peace accords and should the Clinton Administration become directly and publicly engaged in pressuring Israel to redeploy its troops and make good on its commitments, the U.S. public will begin to focus on these issues. When a U.S. President becomes publicly and personally involved in an issue and when the honor of the United States is at stake, the public usually follows.

The struggle for Middle East peace in 1998, will not only be between Israelis and Palestinians, between the Clinton Administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, it must also be a struggle to engage segments of the U.S. public in this debate. To do this will deny Israeli intransigence and its supporters (in Congress – delete) their most potent weapon – an apathetic public.

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