The Republican Party’s pendulum once again seems to be swinging in a hawkish direction, with much of the focus on political figures like Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul.
Concentrating on politicians is all well and good. But it might be more instructive to look at how the party rank and file currently sees the world.
A March McClatchy/Marist poll found that 70 percent of Republicans, like 62 percent of Democrats, want their representatives in Congress to vote to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State.
This includes 40 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Tea Party supporters who want to use a “large number of U.S. ground forces.” Only 15 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of Tea Partiers want to use no ground forces at all.
A Pew Research Center/USA Today poll taken last year found that 71 percent of Republicans support airstrikes against Iraqi militants committing violence against civilians, only 14 percent were opposed.
While most of the country agreed, 51 percent feared the strikes would go too far. Among Republicans, it was the opposite: 57 percent were worried they would not go far enough.
According to a June 2014 CBS News/New York Times poll, 65 percent of Republicans believe the United States should have left some troops in Iraq at the end of 2011. Only 38 percent of independents and 31 percent of Democrats agree.
Fifty-three percent of Republicans said President Obama should be doing more about the violence in Iraq, compared to 21 who said less and 19 percent who thought he was doing the right amount.
In February, Gallup found that 91 percent of Republicans considered the development of nuclear weapons by Iran a “critical threat,” up 5 points from last year. Seventy-seven percent of independents and 68 percent of Democrats agree.
Gallup describes Republicans as “nearly unanimous in support of Israel.” Asked whether they sympathize more with the Israelis versus the Palestinians, Republicans side with Israel by 80 percent to 7 percent.
Even in the face of all these numbers, the depth of Republican hawkishness can be overstated. Right now, calling for more action than is being undertaken by the Obama administration is a cost-free proposition, like calling for more universal health care while a Republican president sits in the White House.
Just as the abstraction of universal health care is almost always more popular than specific, existing health plans like Obamacare, the desire to use military force against the world’s bad actors—which assuredly include ISIS and Iranian mullahs—polls better than wars like Iraq once they are underway.
Even Obama realizes this. That’s why his military interventions have tended to rely on airstrikes, like Bill Clinton’s, or on drones. Using boots on the ground, as George W. Bush discovered, eventually gets you in trouble.
There is polling that suggests Republicans prefer military action in places like Iran to be a last resort. They have in some contexts supported negotiations and might be open to a deal that prevented Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
But polls frequently show Republicans expressing support for ideas associated with comprehensive immigration reform. These same Republicans then oppose specific amnesty bills.
It’s not hypocrisy, entirely. You get one set of results when respondents are asked to assume the immigration bills will work. The opposite results reflect the fact they don’t think they will secure the border and do other things that are promised.
The same is true of a hypothetical Iran deal. Republicans would support a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program. But good luck getting them to trust that the Obama administration and Iran’s current leadership will strike that deal.
There is some truth to Ross Douthat’s argument that the GOP grassroots has less a detailed foreign policy than a “cluster of sympathies and instincts (pro-Israel, pro-military, nationalist rather than globalist, fretful about radical Islam, skeptical of international institutions).”
Those sympathies were still in effect when Republicans were skeptical of war in Libya and outright opposed to military action in Syria. But it’s a much easier case to make when Obama seems to be the one who wants to do the intervening, less so when the hawks can portray various problems around the world as the product of a Democratic president’s diffidence.
The small number of elected Republicans who wish to resist the war fever in some corners of the right may not be playing their hand as well as, say, Tom Cotton. But recent events have dealt Cotton a much better hand.
This is a political reality with which realists must deal.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of the Daily Caller and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?