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Cold War's over, so don't raise defense budget, Americans say

With the Cold War over, more than three-fourths of Americans want defense spending kept at current levels or cut, a new poll shows.

Fifty-seven percent of 2,000 American adults surveyed said they want the defense budget to remain the same, while 24 percent believed that spending should decline.Only 17 percent favored more defense spending, according to a national telephone survey conducted Sept. 4-11 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It carries a sampling margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Those surveyed said U.S. leaders should spend their energy - and public tax dollars - on foreign policy projects that pay off at home, such as protecting American jobs from foreign competition and preventing terrorist attacks on domestic soil.

Also, most Americans now want responsibility and power for world stability to be spread among the leading nations. Only 12 percent said they want the United States to be the world's dominant leader.

President Clinton expressed frustration with American perceptions that it is time to back away from the world stage.

"It's very frustrating to me that I have not been able to persuade my fellow Americans of the benefits of our involvement in the world on a general, philosophical level," he said in a speech to Democratic donors at a Philadelphia dinner. "And I regret that. I've got to keep working on that. I've got to find a way to do a better job of that."

Fifty-five percent of those polled said Clinton has not explained the Bosnia mission well enough for Americans to understand why U.S. troops are stationed there.

In fact, the majority of those surveyed did not want the United States to act as the world's single most active player. One-half opted for shared world leadership and 11 percent said the United States should not play any leadership role.

Only 12 percent said the nation should be the single world leader while 22 percent saw the U.S. role as the world's most active player.

Asked to name the top international problem facing the United States, poll participants most often pointed to economic concerns, threats of violence from foreign sources and this country's role in conflicts around the world.

Protecting American jobs should be the nation's top foreign policy priority, according to 77 percent. Other priorities included: preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, fighting drug trafficking, establishing an adequate energy supply and improving the environment.

The new set of international issues marks a shift from concerns generated by the Cold War, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center.

"The Cold War gave the public a prism through which to view international events and an impetus to find out what the Soviet Union and other countries were doing that we weren't," Kohut said. "Now, there's not a contest."

He suggested public dissatisfaction stems from a lack of interest in, and "scant knowledge of, international affairs and a media focus on violence, conflict and instability."

Asked whether events in western Europe, Mexico, Asia or Canada were relevant to their lives, more than 55 percent of the survey respondents said no.

While 63 percent said they supported the expansion of NATO, only one in 10 could name one nation seeking membership in the alliance, the poll found.