By definition, realists seek a foreign policy immune to public sentiment and special interest groups. In this rarefied view, the preferences of the majority of the American people are immaterial or, worse, self-defeating. ~Michael Oren

Maybe this explains that odd remark Marc Lynch made the other day. There seems to be a widespread belief that foreign policy realists share George Kennan’s distrust and dislike of mass democracy because they are realists. As far as I know, I am probably one of the very few people to whom this might apply, and even I don’t think that foreign policy can or should be independent of public opinion.

I don’t assume that an American foreign policy that accurately reflected the preferences of the majority would automatically be more sensible, wise, or just, but I certainly don’t believe that we can characterize U.S. foreign policy today as something that is highly responsive to public opinion. To take just two examples from recent years, consider the overwhelming establishment conviction that the “surge” was right and successful, and then consider the current Libyan war. Escalating the Iraq war was the exact opposite of what the majority of the electorate voted for in 2006, but that is what happened. Americans wanted no part of the Libyan civil war, but the U.S. intervened anyway.

What I would say, and what I have said for some time, is that actual U.S. foreign policy is not the product of the government reflecting what the public wants, because foreign policy far more than most kinds of government policy is not based on or driven by public opinion. That is an observation, not an endorsement. In almost every case I can think of, public opinion on foreign policy is shaped and driven by relatively few people, and then the public opinion that these people have just been shaping is then invoked as a support for the policies that they defend.

One would think that successful activists would want to take credit for moving public opinion in their direction, but sometimes that isn’t what happens. Instead, we get outraged denials from activists that they wield any influence at all, and they claim to resent the implication that they have ever had success in the past. It’s as if people involved in marketing a product successfully encouraged consumption, and then vehemently denied having any connection later on. When the public is reliably and repeatedly told on a regular basis that a particular country is an embattled democracy facing implacable foes, and that the U.S. has an obligation to its security, the public comes to accept this and repeat it back to pollsters when asked. It doesn’t hurt that there is no politically significant opposition to this message, and most attempts to challenge or criticize this prevailing idea are shouted down or rejected out of hand.

This is what Oren refers to when he claims that the U.S.-Israel alliance is “outstandingly popular” with the American public. Of course, this neglects polling evidence that has regularly shown that a large majority of Americans doesn’t want the U.S. to take sides in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and it certainly overlooks some YouGov polling that shows that less than 40% of the public considers Israel an ally. It’s not at all clear that the alliance is as “outstandingly popular” as Oren claims. Assuming that the alliance was “outstandingly popular,” it wouldn’t mean anything for the substance of actual U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israel. If public opinion were sharply against the alliance, and the public had an extremely negative view of the country in question, as it does concerning, say, Pakistan, the U.S. would maintain the alliance for reasons that have essentially nothing to do with American public opinion. Oren refers to realist views on the importance of public opinion as if they were the realists’ preferences about how policy should be made. They are not. They are statements about how states, even democratic states, make policy decisions.

Public sentiment and special interest groups are two very different things. Interest groups represent a sliver of the general public, and on their main issues they are usually wildly unrepresentative of what the public says that it wants. This is understandable. Interest groups are made up of activists and ideologues who have strongly-held, informed, and often slanted views of policy issues, and usually none of these things applies to the general public. It is understandable and perhaps inevitable that activists that clearly don’t represent the broader public will try to cloak themselves in the mantle of majority support. As the activists would be the first to admit if public opinion were against them, whether or not the majority endorses a policy has no bearing on its merit or lack thereof, but as long as they can (selectively and misleadingly) cite poll results that make their position seem much more popular than it is they will keep doing so. As long as the rest of us keep buying their spin as fact, they will continue to benefit from this exercise.