The Case for Optimism

On February 16, Gallup released the result of a poll which asked about Americans’ impression of the nation’s top enemies. The takeaway from sources such as the conservative Washington Times was the 16 percent increase in distrust towards Russia. This isn’t so surprising, considering the tensions with Russia, and the general terror (or occasionally delight) people feel at the prospect of a new Cold War.

Though the rising fear of Russia is nothing to cheer over, 24 percent of people still have a favorable impression of the country. Furthermore, the poll shows a decline in nervousness towards Iraq, and even towards Iran. Turns out the US didn’t even have to raze Iran to stop being fearful of it as a threat. Years of swearing it was the number one monster, and of politicians clamoring for a war with it, and years of sanctions have still not managed to transform Iran into the boogeyman that warmongers want it to be. In 2011, 25 percent of people thought it was the number one threat. Now it is at 9 percent.

Similarly, Syria and ISIS-controlled nations are a paltry 4 percent. They may be worrisome, but they’re not America’s gravest threat. The headlines can spin these numbers – and they do – but they don’t demonstrate any particular terror of any particular place. Unless you want them to.

Another recent poll, this one by CNN, offers another reason for cautious interventionist optimism. When asked whether the US should support the Palestinian or Israeli side in the conflict, two thirds said neither. Furthermore, 62 percent decided it was wrong for House Speaker John Boehner to invite Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress without even informing the White House.

The presumption that Israel and the US are one and the same has lessened in recent years – even among Israel supporters! This bodes well that such a strong majority believes that we should simply stay out of this fight. A poll cannot kill $3 billion a year in funding to Israel, but is a hell of a start in terms of public opinion. Maybe this isn’t our business, they think, and it certainly isn’t our business to subsidize the oppression of the Palestinians. Seventy-five percent of people under 50 appear to agree that it isn’t – or at least that they’d prefer to stay out of it.

Recent US tensions with Israel in respect to talks with with Iran also bring hope to this idea. The White House isn’t happy with Netanyahu, and has said that he isn’t being honest in the talks. The right screams when Israel isn’t treated as the 51st – and frequently most important – state. But Obama’s relatively tame cooling off towards them is a nice improvement. So is the fact that only 52 percent of Republicans supported Boehner’s ignoring Obama on the invite.

But what about the prospect of brand new wars? Gallup says it’s 54-40 opposing sending aid to Ukrainian separatists. Support for intervention against ISIS hit 54 percent this week, according to an NBC poll. Fascinatingly that number hits 60 percent with Democrats – six percent higher than Republican support. A majority supports limited troop engagement with ISIS as well, lending unfortunate credence to the now-popular notion that a small war is something one can just order from the menu.

For someone who writes for, I am fairly pessimistic about the prospect of changing minds about war sometimes. I am particularly dubious about the notion that a war can be stopped before it begins. When Syria was all the rage in 2012 and ‘13, it felt impossible to stop the US impending invasion. The savage Bashar al-Assad was going down, and since nobody had heard of ISIS, everything was going to be hunky-dory once we got Assad out of the way. (As hunky-dory as Iraq is today, that is.)

Then a weird thing happened. The invasion of Syria that felt so inevitable did not come to pass. People – including the folks behind this website – who believe harder than I do that it’s possible to prevent a war managed to do just that. Everyone was sick of wars, and though the pieces for a new one appeared to be in place, the game was spoiled.

There was barely time to celebrate, and now we’ve got other problems, and other illegal wars to worry over. But it might pay to remember that pure exhaustion and disapproval towards Obama’s Syria plans stopped them. Americans can be pushed back into wars again, by the world stage a little, but by the people who demand wars most of all. They also do weary of them, no matter if ISIS or Putin is going to murder us all. The anti-interventionist’s job is never done. But it is also pays to look at poll numbers like these recent ones, and realize that there are people with us – who know what isn’t our business – and there can always be more of them. We just have to fight the high-gloss propaganda of ISIS and the propaganda of our own government at the same time. We can do it – if we keep trying.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.