While much of the foreign policy elite here sees the tide of public opposition to US air strikes against Syria that swept over Washington during the past two weeks as evidence of a growing isolationism, veteran pollsters and other analysts say other factors were more relevant.
A variety of surveys have shown that the public has become generally more inward-looking in recent years, especially since the 2008 financial crisis and the widespread disillusionment over US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the Barack Obama administration’s failure to muster multilateral support for his plan to punish the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons played a key role, according to some experts.
In addition, demands by more-hawkish forces in Congress and much of the foreign policy elite that any US military attack aim at weakening the regime on the battlefield – and the administration’s somewhat incoherent efforts to appease them – raised public concerns that Washington would soon find itself in the middle of yet another Middle Eastern civil war.
“The administration’s best chance to get public support was to stick to the normative argument [that it was necessary to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons] and not to get involved in affecting the course of the civil war,” said Stephen Kull, director of worldpublicopinion.org.
“But the normative argument got muddied by more talk about trying to affect the outcome of the war and that – combined with the fact that there was no U.N. Security Council approval – clearly bothered people.”
Moreover, by asking the Congress to authorize military action when most of its members were in their home constituencies for the August recess, rather than in the “Beltway bubble” where the foreign policy elite — Washington officialdom, highly paid lobbyists, the Congressional leadership, and think tank analysts — dominate the debate, Obama effectively exposed them to more grassroots pressure than usual.
The foreign policy elite “is generally more skeptical of multilateralism, more supportive of America playing a dominant role in world affairs, and more wary of constraints on US freedom of action than the public is,” Kull, who also heads the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, told IPS.
Surveys of both elite and public attitudes on foreign policy and the US role in the world that have been conducted over decades tend to support that assessment.
“The public is often eager for other countries to take their share – if not take the lead – in dealing with international problems… while the elite or people, who are much more knowledgeable about American power and the role it plays in the world, are more willing to play the role of first among equals in pushing for international action,” said Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press which conducted the most recent major survey of elite-public opinion in late 2009.
“A lot of people in the international affairs world say, ‘If America doesn’t take the lead, no one will feel they should or have’,” he told IPS.
Indeed, in the 2009 survey, only a third of respondents from the general public said Washington should either act as the “single world leader” or the “most active” among major powers. By contrast, nearly seven of 10 elite respondents – taken from the membership of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) – took that position.
“When it comes to military engagements, the public perception is high risk, low reward, while there are many in the elite who see the balance or risk to reward in a different light,” Dimock told IPS.
Few experts deny that the public has turned more inward in recent years, although they generally avoid the qualifier “isolationist”, a pejorative term which is associated – by neo-conservative hawks, in particular — with (mainly Republican) opposition to Washington’s intervention in World War II before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and Germany declared war on the US in December 1941.
“One of the things that has really jumped out in this debate is that the key division between the public and the elites is not internationalist versus isolationist; it’s the different kinds of internationalists,” said Jonathan Monten, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma and co-author of a number of academic articles on elite foreign policy views with Joshua Busby of the University of Texas.
“Are you the kind of internationalist who favors a very muscular, hawkish forward-leaning foreign policy or one who favors working through multilateral means, using more soft-power elements of foreign policy? What the Syria debate reveals is that there are both types of internationalists on both sides of the aisle,” he told IPS.
Until recently, the major media looked almost exclusively to Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham to act as spokesmen for their party’s foreign policy views. However, the Syria debate witnessed the emergence of noninterventionist figures in the party, with virtually all of the lawmakers considered likely 2016 presidential candidates coming out in opposition to military action.
“Before the debate shifted to Congress, it wasn’t really clear how powerful the anti-interventionist bloc was within the Republican caucus,” according to Monton, who said the breakdown in the elite Republican consensus encouraged opposition.
“Ten years ago, they wouldn’t be caught dead opposing the use of military power in the world once it had been proposed. It was interesting how quickly the cascade happened.”
“The growing split in the Republican Party between neoconservative interventionists like McCain and the anti-intervention ‘isolationist’ [Senator] Rand Paul groups forces rank and file Republicans to have to grapple more with issues and possibly choose,” added Busby in an email exchange.
While Obama’s failure to muster multilateral support for military action played a not insignificant part in the public’s opposition to strikes, Dina Smeltz, the senior fellow on Public Opinion and Foreign Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), told IPS, “war weariness [was] the major point”.
“Two in three Americans say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth the cost, and I think those conflicts were probably perceived to be more of a direct [US national] interest than Syria,” she said.
Indeed, a New York Times/CBS News poll taken last weekend found that two-thirds of respondents were particularly concerned that military action in Syria would result in a “long and costly involvement”.
Asked in the same poll whether the US should take “the leading role among all other countries in the world in trying to solve international conflicts,” 62 percent said it should not.
Remarkably, in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion 10 years ago when the US was being compared to the Roman and British Empires in its mastery of world affairs, 43 percent said it should not, compared with a plurality of 48 percent who said it should.
But Kull said the war-weariness factor, like “isolationism”, is overplayed and that both the major media and the foreign policy elite itself tend to underestimate how much the public favors multilateral and cooperative approaches to international affairs.
Indeed, a 2004 CCGA poll of elite and public opinion in which elite respondents were asked to estimate how the public would react to specific issues, found that the opinion leaders significantly underestimated public support for, among other things, US participation in UN peacekeeping operations, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto agreement to curb greenhouse gas emission, giving the UN the power to tax, and accepting collective decisions by the UN’s governing bodies.
“The more multilateral cooperation and support we get, the more comfortable people are,” noted Kull. “In this case, that support was not forthcoming – even the British weren’t there – and that definitely undermines support here.”
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.
Inter Press Service