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Dumbfounded: Washington's Foreign Policy Elite Doesn't Get Why Americans Oppose Bombing Syria

Foreign policy pundits are wrong when they say opposition to striking Syria is evidence of a growing isolationism.
 
 
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The Syria flag painted on cracked ground with vignette.
Photo Credit: Aleksey Klints/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

While much of the foreign policy elite here sees the tide of public opposition to U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 authorise 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 sceptical of multilateralism, more supportive of America playing a dominant role in world affairs, and more wary of constraints on U.S. freedom of action than the public is,” Kull, who also heads the University of Maryland’s Programme on International Policy Attitudes, told IPS.

Surveys of both elite and public attitudes on foreign policy and the U.S. 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 Centre 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.

 
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