Tension exists over some aspects of the administration's approach: A plurality of Chicago-area voters want to see all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, as opposed to President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw by 2014. And a majority say they would support airstrikes against Iran if there is proof that Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons, even if that would mean a rise in gasoline prices — an option that Obama has only hinted at so far, preferring to pursue a diplomatic path.
More than two-thirds of Chicago and suburban voters said the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan — the NATO summit's main focus — has been at least "somewhat successful." Only 27 percent said the effort had been "not too successful" or "not successful at all."
Forty-two percent said the U.S. should withdraw "as quickly as possible" while 33 percent backed Obama's policy of withdrawing in 2014. Only 20 percent said they favored staying "longer if necessary," the position that Obama's Republican opponents advocated during most of the past year.
On a second major foreign policy issue facing the administration — Iran and its nuclear program — slightly more than 4 in 10 voters said that U.S. efforts to cut off Iran's oil imports and impose sanctions are "about right" as a policy. Just under one-third said the policy was "not strong enough," while 14 percent called it "too strong."
The findings come from a Tribune/WGN poll of voters in Chicago and the surrounding six-county metropolitan area. The survey, conducted May 2-10, questioned 1,180 voters. Results have a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percentage points.
In follow-up interviews, voters hit a recurring theme when asked why they thought the 10-year Afghan mission had been at least partially successful.
"We did get (Osama) bin Laden," said Billie Sokol, a retired clerical worker from Carol Stream and a Republican who opposes Obama overall. "They know we mean business, that we're not going to allow terrorism."
On other questions, however, involving Afghanistan, Iran and China, responses displayed a partisan division that usually loomed larger than other divides such as city-suburban, sex or race.
On Iran, for example, 44 percent of self-identified Republicans said they thought the administration-backed sanctions policy was "not strong enough" compared with 35 percent who said the policy was "about right." Among self-identified Democrats, the division was the reverse.
Evanston resident Sharon Feidler was among the 48 percent of Democrats who agreed with the sanctions policy.
"I don't think the alternative is the right way," said Feidler, a 64-year-old retired teacher. "I certainly don't want to start another war."
While she doubts Obama will really pull all troops out of Afghanistan — "he's always hinting there will be some left," she said — Feidler said she still supports him because "the Republican Party is more hawkish. They're more apt to start wars."
Adrienne Greene, 50, a retired probation officer from Glenwood and a Democrat, said Obama had turned out "much more middle-of-the-road, almost conservative" on military and foreign policy matters than she had expected. Like Feidler, she would like to see a faster pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan but added that "if nothing else, bin Laden's gone, so it wasn't for nothing."
On Afghanistan, 45 percent of Democrats backed a withdrawal as fast as possible, while 41 percent supported the administration's 2014 withdrawal date. Only 9 percent said they would back staying longer.
By contrast, 40 percent of Republicans said they favored keeping troops in the country past 2014 if necessary, with 32 percent backing a withdrawal as quickly as possible and 22 percent supporting a 2014 end date.
"I don't like the idea of giving the enemy a timeline," said John Lynn, a retired police officer from west suburban Willow Springs. "We've demonstrated we're there for a reason. I hate to think what will happen when we leave."
On both the Iran and Afghanistan issues, self-described independents were closer to the Democrats' view than that of Republicans.
The desire of many voters to see U.S. troops out of Afghanistan quickly might have turned into a liability for Obama, but so far Republicans have been in a poor position to use the issue for electoral advantage. A large group of Republican officeholders and foreign policy leaders, particularly those associated with the George W. Bush administration and with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party's 2008 nominee, have advocated staying in Afghanistan longer than Obama wants to.
Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, used to criticize Obama for rushing toward the exits in Afghanistan but more recently has muted that line of attack. "Gov. Romney wants to get us out as soon as he can, but he wants to make sure that we get out responsibly," said former U.N. Ambassador Rich Williamson, a top Romney foreign policy adviser.
Romney has more consistently criticized Obama on Iran. The poll clearly shows the deep skepticism Americans have toward that country. By an 8-1 ratio, those surveyed said they believe Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran's leaders insist the country's nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
A 54 to 36 percent majority said they would support airstrikes against Iran if there is proof that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Asked how they would feel if such an attack caused a $1 spike in gasoline prices, voters by 50 percent to 40 said they would consider the price acceptable
Another partisan divide came on China. By almost 2-to-1, Republicans said China was "not a fair competitor" in the global market. Democrats were much more evenly split, with 47 percent saying China was unfair and 42 percent saying the Chinese were mostly fair. Independents hewed closer to the Republican view.
Obama's summit guests may take comfort from one poll finding — a majority, 56 percent to 30 percent, continue to view NATO as vital to U.S. interests even though the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was the alliance's original reason for existence, ended nearly a generation ago. Belief in NATO's continued importance cut across lines of party, sex income and age.