— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) September 4, 2013
As the Obama administration moves toward a dramatic political solution in Syria, Robert Merry detects an inflection point in American politics, the public forcing a “major new direction in American foreign policy”:
In a survey reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the paper asked broader questions about American foreign policy, and the results were revealing. Fully 62 percent of respondents said the United States shouldn’t take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. On a question whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no. Only 15 percent said yes. The Times said that represents the highest level of opposition recorded by the paper in various polls over the past decade.
To understand the significance of these numbers, along with the political pressures building on lawmakers on the issue, it’s important to note that American political sentiment doesn’t change willy-nilly, for no reason. What we’re seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country’s national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy. And, given the country’s foreign-policy history of the past two decades, it isn’t surprising that the people would begin to nudge their leaders with a certain amount of agitation.
It’s unclear what it will take for the “foreign-policy reawakening” to fully penetrate Washington, where many congressmen are openly relieved that a vote on the use of force in Syria has been postponed due to diplomatic breakthroughs (“For scores of Republicans and Democrats troubled by the optics of voting yea or nay, the delay was a godsend”). Moreover, Joshua Keating notes that the public has been in a “multilateralist mood” for quite some time.
In some ways this administration has transitioned away from unpopular full-scale interventionism by simply downplaying any prospect of American involvement as “unbelievably small.” In Libya, the scope of intervention was repeatedly minimized–the administration dodged a mostly apathetic Congress, claiming it was not involved in “hostilities”–while the president largely avoided even talking about America’s role and obligations in that country. But while some dinged the Syria address last week as unnecessary, it’s notable that the political moment now requires some overt grappling with the decision to commit force and a straightforward argument from national interests.
The Syria debate has revealed a certain prudence and realism among the American public. Perhaps the last-minute shift to real, creative diplomacy in this case will activate some fresh strategic thinking among the foreign policy elite. A major new direction indeed.