Washington Loses American Middle on Foreign Policy
Last month, Americans did something they haven't done with gusto in a decade: they had a debate about national security policy -- or the lack thereof. Nearly three years into massive unrest in the Middle East, a would-be vote on going to war in Syria provided Congress and the American public with a chance to weigh in.
And weigh in they did -- with an overwhelming message of opposition, which, combined with Russia's easy outmaneuvering of the Obama administration on Syria, led the White House to call off a vote that it was sure to lose.
Importantly, the Syria fiasco exposed the state of collapse in which the politics of national security exist. Americans are uncharacteristically united in that they find the foreign policies of both parties to be revolting.
Achieving such a feat took great time and effort.
While public support for Obama's foreign policy has dropped to 40 percent according to a recent CNN poll, Americans have a general distrust of both political parties that has been a long time coming. A 2011 Pew poll indicated that 58 percent of respondents wanted Washington to be less active in the world, representing a 10 percent increase from when the question was asked in 2004. Unlike 2004, the poll found that even self-identified conservative Republicans agreed with moderates and liberals on this point: unity at long last.
The reason is Americans' perception that neither the left nor the right knows what it is talking about in assessing foreign threats and how to handle them.
On the left, most elite voices in the national security debate have come in recent years from the progressive side of the Democratic Party. This has been true since 2004, when Democrats, through their choice in a presidential nominee, ditched the more moderate foreign policy pursued by Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Reflecting his rhetorical pivot away from "tax and spend" on fiscal issues, Clinton similarly distanced himself from the peace wing of the Democratic Party that had dominated foreign affairs on the left since the 1972 nomination of anti-war icon George McGovern. Dispensing with that faction's tendency to see American actions as the cause of most of the world's ills, Clinton felt at ease wielding U.S. influence confidently in a manner relatively similar to his predecessors.
Clinton also embraced free trade. Rejecting calls to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiated by his Republican predecessor, he pushed the pact through Congress, observing: "We are on the verge of a global economic expansion that is sparked by the fact that the United States at this critical moment decided that we would compete, not retreat."
In economic and national policy, the Democrats had come a long way since the 24-year period beginning in 1968 when they lost five out of six presidential elections.
Obama changed this. In a 2011 interview with a reporter from The New Yorker, an unnamed White House source described the path Obama took to the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign in Libya as "leading from behind." Obama never embraced the term, but for many people it perfectly captured the administration's approach.
Since the earliest days of the current Middle East unrest, when the president refused to back secularists seeking to depose the Islamist regime in Iran, to tardy statements of support for a collapsing ruler in Egypt, to unhesitating support for the Islamists thugs who followed in that country, Democratic foreign policy has appeared to most Americans as amateur hour -- and anything but strong leadership. Syria was merely the last straw: a presidential decision to pass the buck to Congress for approval of a meaningless but violent military tactic devoid of any overarching strategy or objective.
However, Beltway Republicans have not done much better.
In Washington, the Republican figure most visibly linked to national security issues has been Sen. John McCain. In the 1990s, McCain supported no-fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq. When the Libyan Civil War started in 2011, McCain's solution was also to establish a no-fly zone. When Syria erupted in protest and then civil war, McCain's prescription was, yet again, a no-fly zone.
Voters understandably frown on these operations, even though the tactic theoretically promises a sterile intervention with few or no U.S. casualties. No-fly zones are basically a way of going to war without candidly informing the public of the fact or having a real debate about war. They also constitute open-ended commitments that lack exit strategies and offer little ability to manage political outcomes on the ground. In Syria, a no-fly zone might have helped secular rebel fighters, but it just as easily could have helped jihadists who are potentially worse than the regime they are fighting.
Elsewhere on the Republican side, matters were no better in recent political cycles. Take for example the Ronulans. Urban Dictionary defined them as "followers of the harebrained Libertarian/Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul." Known for misrepresenting the fiscal impact of the post-9/11 U.S. military interventions, which in reality amounted to only 4.4 percent of federal expenditures in the decade after 9/11, the Ronulans shared the far left's view that American actions are the cause of many problems around the world, with U.S. withdrawal presented as a budget-balancing cure-all.
While isolationism is indeed growing thanks to bipartisan fecklessness on national security issues, most modern Americans have never been at ease with this dangerous approach to the world that allows threats to reach home before spurring a response. Newt Gingrich easily demolished the Ronulan argument in a 2011 GOP debate that included Ron Paul:
Paul: "I think the Patriot Act is unpatriotic because it undermines our liberty. I'm concerned, as everybody is, about the terrorist attack. Timothy McVeigh was a vicious terrorist. He was arrested. Terrorism is still on the books, internationally and nationally, it's a crime and we should deal with it. We dealt with it rather well with Timothy McVeigh ... "
Gingrich: "Timothy McVeigh succeeded. That's the whole point. Timothy McVeigh killed a lot of Americans. I don't want a law that says after we lose a major American city, we're sure going to come and find you. I want a law that says, you try to take out an American city, we're going to stop you."
Since then, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has succeeded his father as America's libertarian standard-bearer. But the more polished younger Paul's actions show that even he understands Americans are not all that sympathetic to isolationist sentiments, which he takes pains to downplay and recasts as "non-interventionism."
With these unappealing choices presented by Washington, it should come as no surprise that average Americans are hesitant of any new foreign initiatives. But at the same time, polls consistently show average Americans understand threats better than the Washington foreign policy establishment, especially serious dangers posed by Islamists and the governments of Iran and China.
This political failure offers opportunity to would-be leaders who want a return to the traditional, quintessential American foreign policy of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Furthermore, fatigue over endless wars and incompetent execution should put a premium on the missing middle of statecraft: prioritizing less violent tools of power to help foreign friends and make life difficult for foreign adversaries. Such an approach helped the free world prevail in the Cold War. Leaders espousing an updated version of this approach today could restore voters' confidence in our national security and national power -- and make a dangerous world slightly less so.