The news that Americans want the U.S. government to mind its own business when it comes to foreign affairs has our Washington elite in a panic. The explanatory notes accompanying a new Pew poll [.pdf] describe the "rise in isolationist sentiment" that started during George W. Bush’s second term and continues in the age of Obama. The agonized hand-wringing is all too apparent in the use of the "isolationist" epithet and even in the way the question was asked: should the U.S. "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own"? Forty-nine percent – the highest proportion "in nearly half a century of polling" – answered yes. And that’s not all: a gob-smacking 76 percent agreed the U.S. should "concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home," as opposed to "think[ing] in international terms."
The poll took samples from two groups: common, ordinary, everyday people (i.e., you and me) and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, an elite group of foreign policy-oriented intellectuals, policy wonks, and high muckamucks. The elite group disagreed sharply with the general public’s view on virtually every important question: for example, none of the CFR members thought we should mind our own business – a policy that would go against the group’s history and orientation, which has always been pronouncedly interventionist.
Founded by disciples of Cecil Rhodes, who sought to reestablish the fading glory of the British empire by using the U.S. as Britain’s cat’s-paw, the CFR doesn’t just represent the views of the American Establishment – it is the Establishment. And that Establishment is committed irrevocably to the idea that America’s destiny is to inherit the mantle of world leadership: in the CFR’s view, the question is not whether we ought to police the world, but rather how to go about it. The American public, on the other hand, is sick to death of endless war – the inevitable result of assuming "world leadership" – and is increasingly diverging from elite opinion when it comes to the pressing foreign policy issues of the day.
For example, as this poll shows, when it comes to Afghanistan, the latest theater in which the interventionist drama is being played out, the gulf between the elites and the public is wide, and getting deeper: 50 percent of the CFR group support Obama’s Afghan "surge," while among the hoi polloi the number drops to 32 percent. Asked if the United States should be the "most assertive" world leader, only 19 percent of the general public agrees, but when it comes to the CFR, the numbers turn around: 62 percent want the "most assertive" role for the U.S.
None of this is really all that new. If I recall correctly, the last time this poll was taken, back in 2005, a "rising isolationism" was similarly conjured by the chattering classes, who took the opportunity to deride the "turning inward" of the American people – who were depicted as basking in their uninformed parochialism and refusing to take up their "duty" to police the world (and, yes, I wrote about it at the time). The dreaded "isolationist" wave, it seems, is always about to crash down on the heads of our busybody elites, whose penchant for interventionism has brought us such a painful harvest of bankruptcy and blowback. The elites are always looking over their shoulders and worrying that, one day, peasants with pitchforks will storm the castle, demanding their heads – and, if the Pew poll numbers are correct, it looks like that day may not be far off.
How do we account for the huge gap between the people and those who make policy in their name?
To begin with, we have an entire class of people whose jobs, social prestige, and livelihoods are directly tied to our foreign policy of global intervention. These people are naturally inclined to favor militarism and meddling in the affairs of other nations. This group, while small in numbers, wields an outsized influence when it comes to such matters, and it can successfully defy popular opinion for quite a long time.
It manages to hornswoggle the public with a number of scams, notably the cult of expertise, which Americans have traditionally been suckers for, and never more so than today, when confusion over the sheer complexity of some of the foreign policy issues being raised makes people particularly vulnerable to the argument from authority.
Will our intervention in Pakistan shore up the faltering government or quicken the destabilization already taking place? Does Iran have the technological capacity to make nuclear weapons? What about the alleged threat posed by a "resurgent" Russia? Ordinary human beings throw up their hands in despair when confronted with such heady topics, but if you’re a member of the Council on Foreign Relations you likely already have a well-honed position on these and other equally weighty matters – one that is probably counterintuitive to the ordinary American. Oh, but that supposedly just proves how uninformed we plebeians are, and how wise our interventionist betters.
The cult of expertise is being used to maximum effect by the Obamaites as they prepare to bog us down in the Afghan quagmire for the next five to 10 years: that’s why it supposedly took 92 days for the One to reach a decision on the Afghan escalation issue, as he conducted an extended foreign policy seminar-and-debating-society at the highest reaches of his administration. The whole charade – as if withdrawal was ever an option! – fits in with the self-described "pragmatism" of the Obama administration, which abjures general principles and affects a brisk "just the facts" get-the-job-done air – a method and style that neatly evades the question of whether the job should be done at all.
Another trick that allows the foreign policy elite to get away with pursuing a course so out of sync with the general population is elite control of the political system. As we never cease reminding the rest of the world, America is a democracy, and the people get to vote for – or vote out – their leaders. However, when both candidates – and there are usually only two major applicants for the job – advocate variations on the same interventionist themes, then the "choice" presented to voters is strictly limited, and in fact nearly meaningless.
Remember that President Obama was supported by a great number of people who mistakenly thought he embodied an alternative to the belligerent militarism of the Bush years. Now they are confronted with a "war president" who, in escalating a conflict begun by his predecessor, says he’s determined to "finish the job."
A third method used to get around the common sense "isolationism" of the American people is interventionist control of the "mainstream" media – which can be counted on to act as a megaphone for government officials and the interests that back them. While the tendency of Americans to want to stay out of foreign entanglements might apply in most cases, in some instances people are ready to make an exception if specific grounds can be found ("weapons of mass destruction," the presence of al-Qaeda, or perhaps both of these together) to make an exception.
This is why, in the case of Iran, when asked in the Pew poll if that country posed a threat to the U.S., the non-elites were more willing to use force than the elites. The War Party has already expended a lot of time, energy, and money on demonizing the Iranians and presenting Tehran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons program as a threat to the U.S. and its allies. When it comes to Pakistan, however, it is the non-elites who are more skeptical of U.S. intervention in case that country’s nukes should prove insecure, and it is the CFR types who most want to crack down on the alleged threat emanating from Islamabad. Given enough time, and a shift of focus, however, the media will construct as fearsome a narrative regarding Pakistan as any concocted in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
The portrait painted by the Pew poll is of an increasingly isolated – and anxious – elite whose foreign policy views are nearly the opposite of the overwhelming majority of Americans. Our Brahmins face a crisis of confidence, one that could very well be followed by a crisis of legitimacy – and that is what they fear most of all.
This crisis is exacerbated not only by the increasing failure of our foreign policy to do what it is supposed to do – that is, protect Americans from harm – but by a number of relatively recent developments that undermine their methods of suppressing majority "isolationist" sentiment.
The first and most obvious is the Internet, which has not only bypassed the "mainstream" media and, indeed, driven it into near-bankruptcy, but which has also delivered a body blow to the cult of the "experts." After all, who is an "expert," and why are they so called? Well, because they generally have credentials and, therefore, are given a platform by the media to expound on matters they supposedly know everything about. Yet with the advent of the Internet, the significance of this "mainstream" platform is radically reduced. Add to this the wide availability of previously obscure knowledge – thanks be to the gods of Google! – and credentialism is thrown out the window. Today, an unknown writer can take to the Internet, set up a blog, and – perhaps – become the go-to source for this or that specialized branch of knowledge. An alternative crop of experts has arisen, which rivals the old crowd and indeed seems to be fast surpassing them, at least so far as influence over the public is concerned.
Yet the elite stranglehold on our foreign policy continues, in large part due to the iron grip of the interventionists on the two-party system. Our present conundrum – a president elected to office largely on the strength of his "antiwar" stance, who is now taking us into a wider and more difficult war than his warlike predecessor ever conceived – is an eloquent testament to this cruel fact.
If the leadership of both major parties sees Afghanistan as a "war of necessity," then the War Party can relax – because the restive public will have no one to turn to even as it rejects the policies put forward by the elites. This is why the policymakers can continue to ignore the rising rebellion against interventionism roiling the American street and continue talking only to themselves.
In their view, ordinary Americans don’t matter: only politicians, lobbyists, and other policy wonks matter. But this Marie Antoinette attitude can only take them so far before they run the risk of revolution.