Fuzzy on Nicaragua. Poll finds US voters ill-informed on conflict

Despite years of debate, Americans continue to be ill-informed about the issues facing the United States in Central America. A study released Wednesday finds, for example, that 61 percent of American voters believe that the Soviet Union is supporting a communist revolution against Nicaragua's government. The fact: The government there is a Soviet ally - and the US is supporting the rebel forces.

The public's lack of knowledge about foreign affairs is hampering American policy and making it difficult for presidential hopefuls to engage in meaningful debate, experts say.

The latest study, one of a series sponsored by Americans Talk Security, found great resistance among US voters to any kind of foreign aid.

Information from the ATS surveys is compiled by Democratic and Republican pollsters for use by the presidential campaigns in both parties.

Fred Steeper, senior vice president at Market Opinion Research, a Republican polling firm, says public opposition to foreign involvement helps Democratic prospects this year.

``The public, whether they think of themselves as conservatives or liberals, find foreign aid and military aid both unpopular ideas as long as we have so many problems here at home,'' Mr. Steeper says.

The message in this for George Bush and the Republicans: Avoid talking about Central America, says Steeper.

``[Democrat] Michael Dukakis has the upper hand because he can play to the misperceptions and the lack of awareness of the issues. He can play to this generic feeling that we have enough problems at home.''

Ironically, the survey found that 59 percent supported military aid for those fighting a communist-backed government that is bent on exporting communism to its neighbors - a description that many conservatives believe fits the Nicaragua situation.

The survey, fifth in a series of 10 studies, also explored public attitudes on the illegal drug problem.

By and large, voters back a wide range of actions by the government, including military interdiction of drug shipments and economic sanctions against countries that failed to enforce laws on exporting drugs. The public was more hesitant on proposals to use either United States or United Nations troops to destroy drug crops or drug laboratories in other countries.

Despite widespread concern about the drug problem - 83 percent believe it is ``out of control'' - there was virtually no support for recent suggestions that the quickest solution is to legalize substances like marijuana and cocaine.

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