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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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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 U.S. 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 favours a very muscular, hawkish forward-leaning foreign policy or one who favours 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 non-interventionist 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 [U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 favours 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, U.S. participation in U.N. peace-keeping operations, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto agreement to curb greenhouse gas emission, giving the U.N. the power to tax, and accepting collective decisions by the U.N.’s governing bodies.

 
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