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POLITICS-US: National Security Experts Grim on Terror War

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Feb 13 2007 (IPS) - A new survey of more than 100 U.S. foreign policy experts – both Republicans and Democrats, as well as retired military and intelligence professionals – has found deep pessimism over the “global war on terror” and even deeper pessimism over the war in Iraq.

According to the survey, the second in the last six months carried out by Foreign Policy magazine and the Centre for American Progress, two out of three foreign policy experts oppose President George W. Bush’s plans to increase troop levels in Iraq, while nearly nine out of 10 say the war there is undermining U.S. national security.

Overall, three out of four respondents disagreed with assertion that Washington “is winning the war on terror”, while 81 percent said the world is becoming “more dangerous” to the United States and its people.

The survey also found wide, although narrowing differences compared to six months ago, between expert opinion and the views of the general public on a range of issues related to Iraq and the war on terrorism. Experts were significantly more pessimistic that the public at large and voiced considerably less confidence in the Bush administration’s performance.

The survey, called “The Terrorism Index” and published in the upcoming issue of Foreign Policy, is based on interviews with former senior government officials who have served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as independent analysts, experts and journalists who have covered national security issues.

Eighty percent of respondents have served in the U.S. government, and more than half in the executive branch, including in the White House or in top cabinet posts. Twenty-six percent served in the military and 18 percent in the intelligence community.

As to their political leanings, 30 percent of respondents identified themselves as “conservative”; 42 percent said they were “moderate”; and 44 percent “liberal”. But the survey organisers weighted the results so that the views of self-described “conservatives” were given equal representation with those of the “liberals”.

When broken down ideologically, 43 percent of the conservatives polled said they believed the U.S. is winning the war on terror, compared to 50 percent of conservatives who disagreed. Only five percent of both moderates and liberals said they thought Washington was winning.

By contrast, 46 percent of the general public told interviewers in a Pew Center for the People & the Press survey conducted last November that Washington is winning the war on terrorism, although that number has shrunk to around 33 percent in the most recent polling.

Asked whether they believed Bush had a plan to protect the country from terrorism, seven out of 10 of the expert respondents – including nearly 40 percent of the self-described conservatives – said no. By contrast, 51 percent of the public said last November that Bush does indeed have a plan.

Experts were particularly pessimistic on Iraq and U.S. policy there. Eighty-eight percent of the experts said the war is having a negative impact on U.S. national security.

Asked to rate the administration’s job in Iraq on a 10-point scale, 92 percent of respondents – including 82 percent of conservatives – described it as below five. Fifty-nine percent of the entire group gave the administration the lowest possible rating (1-2), including a plurality of 48 percent of conservatives.

Significantly, among 81 percent of experts who said the world is becoming “more dangerous” to the U.S., a large plurality identified the Iraq war as “one principal reason” why. Only six months ago, the reason most cited by the experts who believed the world was becoming more dangerous was anger and hostility among Muslims.

Only one-third of the expert pool agreed with the administration’s notion that Iraq has become the “central front on the war on terrorism,” while two-thirds said they disagreed.

That may help explain why two-thirds of the experts said they disagreed with Bush’s plan to increase troop levels in Iraq, but 69 percent said they favoured adding troops in Afghanistan. In the last six months, according to the survey, expert confidence about the situation in Afghanistan has fallen sharply, according to the survey.

Indeed, asked to rate the relative strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan today compared to one year ago, a total of 83 percent of experts rated it either “somewhat” (57 percent) or “much stronger” (26 percent).

The experts also rated Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas as “much” and “somewhat” stronger, respectively, than a year ago. A large majority (72) percent said they believed that Islamist extremism was also growing in Western Europe.

The experts also voiced strong concern about Pakistan. Asked to choose the country most likely to become the next stronghold of al Qaeda, Pakistan (30 percent) was rated second, just behind Somalia (34 percent, but that was before Ethiopia’s recent military campaign there), and 91 percent of the experts said the U.S. must increase pressure on Pakistan to crackdown against Taliban and al Qaeda militants in tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Asked to identify the world’s most dangerous government, 40 percent of the experts named Iran, while 35 percent cited North Korea, and nine percent – including 14 percent of self-described conservatives – identified the United States itself.

At the same time, a plurality of 26 percent rated “a denuclearised Korean Peninsula” as the “most important policy objective” for Washington to achieve in the next five years. Seventeen percent identified a stable Iraq as the most important objective, and 12 percent named stopping Iran’s nuclear programme.

North Korea’s status at the top of the list may be explained by the experts’ assessment that Pyongyang was significantly more likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists than any other country, including the two most-often-cited countries, Pakistan and Iran.

The experts voiced little confidence in Bush’s ability to address the challenge posed by Tehran, with 73 percent voiding disapproval of his performance to date. That, too, was a significantly higher percentage than the general public’s view. Last November, a plurality of 40 percent of respondents told Pew they approved of Bush’s handling of Iran.

Asked to rate the impact of 14 specific policies or actions by the administration, the experts cited the war in Iraq as the most negative by far, followed by the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo and elsewhere, and U.S. positions during the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

On the more positive side, experts said the administration had made real progress in stanching the flow of money to terrorist organisations around the world and the least progress in public diplomacy.

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