The front page story in the Wall Street Journal yesterday (“Americans Want to Pull Back from World Stage, Poll Finds”) points to an intriguing contrast between the sentiments of the American people and their elites when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. While Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been urging in unison that Washington “do something” about Ukraine—the debate only being about the level of American intervention—nearly half of those surveyed in the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll “want the U.S. to be less active in the global stage, with fewer than one-fifth calling for active engagement—an anti-interventionist current that sweeps across party lines,” reports the Journal.
Indeed, reading the editorial and op-ed pages in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other leading newspapers, one gets the impression that our pundits treat the notion that the United States should increase its role in world affairs—whether it’s regarding the tensions in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, or the island disputes in the South and East China Seas—as an axiom of sorts, while the attitudes of the American people run exactly in the opposite direction. The new poll findings “portray a public weary of foreign entanglements,” according to the Journal. The 47 percent of respondents who called for a less active role in world affairs “marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997, and 1995.” This anti-interventionist mood of the American people (to the Journal’s credit, it refrained from tagging it as “isolationist”) has been identified in several other opinion polls conducted in recent months.
Last year the Pew Research Center detected a record 53 percent of Americans stating that the United States “should mind its own business internationally” and allow other countries to get along as best as they can (that compared with 41 percent in 1995, and 20 percent in 1964). These views were endorsed by majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Other polls point to a consensus among Americans regarding U.S. policy in Ukraine and Syria, with clear majorities rejecting Washington’s conventional wisdom that these crises are central to U.S. national interests, and opposing American military intervention in them.
As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center points out in Politico, “there is little appetite across the American political spectrum to get deeply involved with difficult problems that are not easily seen as critically important to U.S. interests.” So while Republican lawmakers attack President Obama for not getting tough enough with Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, Republican voters are as reluctant as Democrats to get the United States involved in Syria and Ukraine. “There are interesting distinctions when you break down these views by country,” reports Kohut. “With respect to Ukraine, just 45 percent of Republicans said the United States should take a firm stand against Russian actions there compared with 35 percent of Democrats. On Syria, on other hand, more Democrats (43 percent) than Republicans (34 percent) favored airstrikes to force Assad to give up his chemical weapons,” which explains why Republicans lawmakers were ready to vote against authorizing President Obama to use military force against Assad.
The Journal suggests that growing anti-interventionist sentiment around the country may explain the ascent of Sen. Rand Paul as a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. But here is an interesting paradox: Much of the noise on foreign policy coming out of the GOP, including from other potential presidential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio and Governor Christie, has been taking the form of attacks on Obama for resisting the Washington pressure to intervene, and in particular for the suggestion (raised by an unnamed source in the New Yorker) that the United States should “lead from behind.” In a way, John (“bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain—and not Rand Paul—is seen by the media (and supposedly the public) as the Republican voice on foreign policy.
If anything, Senator Paul, whose foreign policy views are more in line with Republican voters’ sentiments, seems to be playing defense on issues like Ukraine, trying to demonstrate to the neoconservative pundits and hawkish GOP operators that he is not an “isolationist.” He pledged in a recent op-ed in Time magazine that, “If I were President, I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it,” even as he insisted that, “Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less” and voted against recent legislation that would send financial assistance to Ukraine.
Senator Paul probably thinks that this kind of “balanced” approach on Ukraine and other foreign policy issues will not antagonize the members of the powerful interventionist of his party while at the same time, helping to market himself to the anti-interventionist Republican voters as a “sensible” guy when it comes to U.S. role in the world. But more likely, if he follows this strategy, Senator Paul will not gain the approval of either side. He will never be able to win the support of those Republican pro-interventionist strategists and pundits who continue to dominate the foreign policy discourse in the party. But he will also fail in outlining a coherent message that stresses the need to reduce the military role that the United States is playing today in world affairs, and fail to clearly establish himself as an alternative to the likes of John McCain, or for that matter, Hillary Clinton.
Instead of continuing to play catch-up on foreign policy with McCain and other Republican adversaries, Paul should take a lesson from President Obama, who during a press conference in the Philippines this week blasted McCain and his other foreign policy critics who he described as operating “in an office in Washington or New York” and who seemed to be “eager to use military force.”
Here is an idea: Paul could convene a series of public forums around the country to discuss the United States’s role in the world, in which he could have a dialogue with “regular” Americans in places like Iowa and New Hampshire on how the U.S. should respond to the crises in Ukraine or Syria. Such forums could bring together Republican and Democratic speakers as well as political scientists and historians from local colleges, and could conclude with the attendees voting for or against proposed resolutions.
My guess is that the anti-interventionist sentiments the polls have been finding nationally would be echoed by participants in these public forums, and could provide Paul with political momentum as he prepares for the 2016 presidential race. It’s worth a try.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.