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Survey: Americans question role in Korean peninsula

By Tim Lister, CNN
Small-scale skirmishes have flared repeatedly along the Korean border over the past six decades.
Small-scale skirmishes have flared repeatedly along the Korean border over the past six decades.
  • Poll examined attitudes toward U.S. military presence around the world
  • Support for bases in North and South Korea remains steady
  • But most people oppose U.S. involvement in any hostilities
  • Poll was conducted before Tuesday's attacks

(CNN) -- Americans are growing weary of the country's many security commitments overseas and increasingly feel that U.S. allies need to do a better job of taking care of themselves. And while more support a long-term military presence in South Korea than in Afghanistan or Iraq, most Americans feel U.S. forces should not get involved in conflict between South and North Korea.

Those are among the conclusions of a recent poll taken by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that examined attitudes toward the U.S. military presence around the world.

It found growing hostility to permanent U.S. bases overseas, compared with the previous survey conduced in 2008. Support for long-term bases in Afghanistan dropped 5 points to 52 percent. Only half of Americans (50 percent) now support bases in Iraq, down 7 points from 2008. And fewer Americans regarded countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Britain as "very important" to the United States.

By contrast, support for the Korean bases remained steady at 62 percent, with 36 percent opposing them. But there's great reluctance among Americans to get drawn into military hostilities between the two Koreas.

Asked how the United States should respond to the torpedo attack earlier this year by North Korea on a South Korean warship, in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed, only 27 percent said the United States should have joined in "punishing" the North. Sixty-six percent said that criticizing the North was adequate.

Perhaps more surprisingly, more than half those questioned (56 percent) opposed unilateral U.S. action in the event of an invasion by the North. However, a majority (61 percent) believed that the U.S. should help counter any aggression by North Korea as part of a multinational effort.

The poll was conducted before Tuesday's hostilities and before North Korea's uranium enrichment program was revealed Saturday.

Opponents of the current bases arrangement point to the burden on the U.S. taxpayer of keeping about 28,500 U.S. service personnel in South Korea at a time of economic difficulty and government debt at home. They also point to the substantial U.S. trade deficit with South Korea: $13.4 billion in 2008 and $10.6 billion last year.

Over the past few years, however, many U.S. military facilities in South Korea have been closed or consolidated, with much of the financial burden for the relocation borne by South Korea. That process will continue over the next five years, part of a gradual transition under which the Korean military will assume the lead in the defense of the country by late 2015.

Supporters of a substantial U.S. military presence point out that South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea, a nuclear-armed and unpredictable adversary, and that withdrawing the troops there might encourage "adventurism" by Pyongyang.

The commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, Gen. Walter L. Sharp, said recently that the North posed "an asymmetric threat, one that holds at risk the capital of one of the world's most important economies right here in Seoul."

Just before President Obama's recent trip to the region, the White House described the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea as a "cornerstone of stability and prosperity" for U.S. allies.

U.S. bases in South Korea are one of the few points of bipartisan agreement in Washington. On Tuesday, the incoming speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement: "We will stand by South Korea and are firmly committed to defending our ally."

The words of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., were almost identical: "We must stand in solidarity with the Republic of Korea and with all those who desire peace and stability in that region."

Even if fewer Americans than before think the current U.S. military presence overseas is affordable or desirable, they still believe that strong relations with allies such as South Korea and Japan are important to contain growing Chinese influence in east Asia. Twenty-seven percent of those questioned by the Chicago Council said it was very important that China not be allowed to dominate the Korean peninsula.