It’s hard to tell what type of foreign policy American voters actually want. In fact they might not care that much about the rest of the world at all.
An interesting dispute emerged online yesterday after Kevin Drum claimed that Americans really like war:
According to polls, nearly two-thirds of Americans are on board with the fight against ISIS and nearly half think we ought to be sending in ground troops. That’s despite the fact that practically every opinion leader in the country says in public that they oppose ground troops. At this point it would take only a tiny shove—a bomb scare, an atrocity of some kind, pretty much anything—and 70 percent of the country would be in full-bore war frenzy mode.
It’s like we’ve learned nothing from the past decade. Our politicians are in love with war. The public is in love with war. And the press is really in love with war. It just never ends.
And at first glance it seems like Drum is right. A majority of Americans do support military intervention against ISIS. But in response Greg Sargent pointed out that there are a lot of problems with Drum’s assertion that we are “in love” with war. Namely that:
A CNN poll released Monday shows that while 73 percent of Americans support air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, 59 percent think we are not at war with ISIS; 54 percent oppose arming the Syrian rebels; and 60 percent oppose sending in ground troops.
So who’s right? Well in some ways I think Drum and Sargent are asking the wrong question. Jonathan Bernstein offered a reasonable explanation for what’s happening here. In short, voters don’t love war they just don’t care that much about foreign policy in general:
It may be that most Americans just don’t care much when they aren’t being pressed by pollsters. There are no huge rallies against military action nor is there any reported surge in enlistment. It’s not even clear how many voters know that U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan — or how many voters knew before the latest airstrikes that U.S. troops had left Iraq. (How about some polling on basic facts about foreign policy?).
All this may simply reflect what we’ve known for a long time: Without a draft or full mobilization, wars only touch a relatively small segment of the U.S. population. Drone wars or airstrikes are even less likely to “feel” like war to most Americans. So these conflicts may become just another issue that people only think about when pollsters call, but don’t care enough about to take political action.
I’d agree that voters probably don’t have big preferences when it comes to foreign policy, other than being against wars that go poorly or produce a large number of American casualties. And while it’s a hard truth to admit, war doesn’t really affect the vast majority of Americans who aren’t in the military and don’t know anyone who is in it either, especially when wars are financed by deficits rather than through higher taxes.
This isn’t to say that nobody cares about American foreign policy. It’s just that instead of ordinary voters expressing strong preferences, like they do over marriage or abortion, foreign policy is decided by other political actors. Actors like think tanks, advocacy groups, and public intellectuals.
All of this puts Obama’s strategy in a new light. If the US were to send ground troops into Syria or Iraq the resulting casualties could make that intervention a political disaster for the Obama Administration. But the much criticized policy of containment and limited air strikes that we have right now is unlikely to be good or bad for the President in terms of polling. Which means it can probably be sustained for a very long time and thus might be a more workable plan in the long run than an Iraq War III that hawks like John McCain have been flogging as of late.
As for voters, well they probably just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the rest of the world. Which is unfortunate, but based what we collectively chose to care about and what our media chooses to cover it shouldn’t strike anyone as particularly odd.
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Photo by United States Forces Iraq/Flickr