Daniel Larison

Gaza and U.S. Public Opinion

Gallup finds that Americans are split on the question of whether Israel’s actions in Gaza have been justified or not. Overall, 42% say that they are justified, 39% say they are not, and 20% have no opinion. These results are comparable to a Gallup poll taken during the second intifada twelve years ago, but there are slightly more on the ‘unjustified’ side than there were then. As we have seen in other polls on related matters, there is a significant gap between Republicans and everyone else:


It is striking how evenly divided the public is on this question when there is total uniformity among political leaders in the U.S. that Israel is justified in what it has been doing. There is always a significant gap between popular and elite views on foreign policy issues, but it is still fairly unusual for a view held by almost 40% of Americans to have virtually no representation in Congress.

The generational divisions on this question are almost as great:


I noted in a previous post that Americans under 50 were relatively less sympathetic to Israel than their elders, since the Israel they know about is very different from the one that older generations knew. These results help to explain why that is happening. Younger Americans evidently have less patience with Israeli military operations, and they appear to be less inclined to accept the standard rationalizations for those operations. According to Gallup’s findings, most Americans under 50 don’t believe Israeli actions in Gaza are justified, and it seems likely that the operation in Gaza is making these Americans even less sympathetic to Israel. If this trend continues in the future, Israel will eventually find itself with few sympathizers in the U.S.

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Gaza and Moral Idiocy

Rich Lowry dutifully recites the official line on the conflict in Gaza:

Each civilian death in Gaza is a tragedy, but who is ultimately responsible? The moral calculus here is simple. Hamas precipitated the war and persisted in waging it even when Israel was willing to accept an Egyptian offer of a cease-fire. Hamas hides its rockets in schools and places its command bunkers under hospitals. It wants war, and it wants civilian casualties.

The summary is misleading at best, but even if we accept all of it as true it doesn’t make Israel’s current military operation defensible. Hamas may want war and civilian casualties, and it is fully responsible for everything that it does, but that doesn’t justify Israel in giving them what they want. Nothing could better sum up the irrationality of defenders of the current operation than the argument Lowry is offering here. We’re supposed to accept that Israel’s government mustn’t be faulted for what it’s doing, because Israeli forces are inflicting death and destruction that predictably redounds to Hamas’ political benefit. According to this view, Hamas is the only one to be blamed for the consequences of the military overreaction that has stupidly given Hamas an unwelcome boost. This is little better than the foreign policy equivalent of saying “the devil made me do it,” as if it that made everything all right. There is some moral idiocy on display in this debate, but it isn’t coming from people objecting to the excessive and indiscriminate use of force in this conflict.

Periodically bombing and/or invading a blockaded population is a guaranteed way of ensuring that Israel will face continued hostility from increasingly radical enemies, who thrive on the outrages that any government will inevitably inflict when it uses modern weapons in a densely populated area. These operations not only generate propaganda coups for the people that Israel is supposed to be punishing, but they ensure that the better part of entire generations of Palestinians will opt for violence for years and decades to come. Lowry’s argument is similar to Western justifications for the Iraq sanctions regime during the ’90s. The sanctions inflicted enormous suffering on the civilian population of Iraq and by the most conservative estimates caused the premature deaths of almost three hundred thousand Iraqis, but this was always blamed on the Iraqi government. No matter what the U.S. or its allies and clients do, it is always “ultimately” someone else’s fault. Instead of facing up to the fact that it was the U.S. and other outside powers that were strangling Iraqis with sanctions, we declared Hussein responsible for a horrible policy that was primarily our doing. So it is again today that we have people striving mightily to place the responsibility for Israeli actions on anyone except the government that has ordered them.

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The Folly of Unquestioning Support for a Client

Politico reports some of Rand Paul’s recent foreign policy comments:

Potential GOP presidential contender Rand Paul said Wednesday that no one should question Israel’s actions in a time of war.

“I wouldn’t question what they need to do to defend themselves,” the Kentucky Republican told conservative radio host Glenn Beck on “The Blaze.” “These are difficult decisions people make in war when someone attacks you. It’s not our job to second guess.”

It may be not be “our job” to question what a client state does, but that doesn’t really explain why Paul won’t do it. When the U.S. is implicated in the actions of the client because it chooses to subsidize the client, it would seem entirely appropriate and even necessary for U.S. politicians and officials to question and even criticize Israeli actions in some cases. Until that financial support ceases, U.S. politicians should not only question Israeli actions, but they should oppose those actions when they adversely affect U.S. interests.

Saying that we shouldn’t “second guess” what another government does in the name of self-defense is to say that we should simply stop thinking about the relevant issues all together. Client governments may or may not deserve U.S. support, but it is inevitable that they will err and make serious misjudgments that affect both the U.S. and the client. Sometimes a client will claim that it is acting in self-defense when that isn’t true (e.g., when it portrays its decision to escalate a conflict as something that was forced on it by others). Sometimes a client will pick a fight with a neighbor on the assumption that the U.S. will back them to the hilt. At other times, a client may pursue a policy antithetical to U.S. goals and wishes, or it may actively oppose a U.S. policy that it considers undesirable. All of these things can be and have been lumped together under the label of self-defense. “Self-defense” is used nowadays as a blanket justification for everything from retaliatory strikes to targeted assassinations to preventive attacks, and it is imperative that members of Congress be willing and able to question and challenge claims of self-defense from clients in order to determine whether U.S. support is warranted or not.

There are presumably dangerous and provocative actions that a U.S. client state might take to “defend” itself that members of Congress would be obliged to question and perhaps even oppose. That is especially true when unquestioning support for a client’s actions makes it more difficult for the U.S. to pursue its other goals in the surrounding region. If it isn’t “our job to second guess,” U.S. politicians and officials likewise shouldn’t take every opportunity to affirm their support for actions that even many in Washington can see to be futile and wrong. If they can’t bring themselves to question what U.S. clients do, they can at least refrain from uncritical approval as well.

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Why Republicans Still Haven’t Regained the Public’s Trust on Foreign Policy

Matt Yglesias comments on a new Politico poll:

By a margin of 39 to 32 the GOP is the party that’s more trusted with the country’s foreign policy. That points to an optimal political strategy for Republicans of complaining loudly and repeatedly about Obama’s lack of leadership in various foreign crises without saying too much in detail about what they would do specifically. In other words, what the GOP is already doing. Most people, it turns out, don’t have detailed and fully coherent ideas about the whole range of public policy issues so they can turn toward the more hawkish party without embracing any particular hawkish ideas.

It’s true that more respondents chose the GOP as the party they trust on foreign policy, but Yglesias doesn’t mention the 28% that were unsure which party they preferred. This 28% figure is interesting, since it suggests that there is a large percentage of the public that may be open to trusting either party. Most Americans still don’t trust Republicans on foreign policy, and with good reason, but most lack confidence in the other party as well. The GOP could continue to indulge its worst hawkish habits, but the rest of the poll’s results suggest that consistently agitating for greater involvement in any and all crises and conflicts overseas is still a serious political liability. The GOP might momentarily have a plurality lead in this poll, but that still means that at least six in ten Americans don’t trust the party on foreign policy. As long as it is the party pushing deeply unpopular policies with the intention of dragging the U.S. deeper into foreign conflicts, it isn’t going to win those Americans over anytime soon.

As Yglesias notes, the support for relatively more hawkish measures is quite limited and never even reaches 25% on any issue. Support for reduced involvement is significantly higher in each case: 34% want less involvement in Ukraine, 44% want less involvement in Iraq, and 42% want less involvement in Syria. Considering how limited direct U.S. involvement in all three countries is, these numbers are remarkably high. That would appear to support my earlier view that the public is souring on Obama’s foreign policy in large part because he has insisting on trying to take the “lead” in these crises when that is just what large percentages of Americans don’t want him to be doing.

These results also point to the reason why Republican hawkish critics have to remain as vague in their complaints as possible: as soon as they begin to argue for their preferred policies in some detail, they are bound to run into a wall of public disapproval. The GOP’s optimal strategy is to make substantial, credible changes on foreign policy so that it is not so completely at odds with the vast majority of Americans. That has been the lesson from at least three of the last four elections, but it remains one that GOP leaders stubbornly refuse to learn.

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CUFI and “God’s Foreign Policy Statement”

Dave Weigel reports from the Christians United for Israel conference:

“I’ll bless those that bless you and I’ll curse those that curse you,” said Hagee, quoting from the book of Genesis. “That’s God’s foreign policy statement, and it has not changed.” [bold mine-DL]

I confess that I don’t really understand Hagee and his organization. Oh, I know what the organization wants and why it thinks its activism on these issues is important, but that’s not what I mean. I still don’t understand why any group of Christians in this country believes it is so important to agitate so vehemently on behalf of another state, nor do I understand how they reconcile this uncritical boosterism with the Gospel. If we were being frank, we would all readily admit that God doesn’t have a “foreign policy statement” as such and that the idea of such a thing is obviously so much self-serving nonsense. At the same time, as Christians we would also have to acknowledge that God doesn’t call us to make excuses for injustice or defend policies that inflict death and devastation on people made in His image. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is primarily what CUFI exists to do.

Christians in America are of course free to organize and support political causes of their choice, and some will favor a far more hawkish foreign policy than I think wise, but I have to admit that the zealous enthusiasm for another country and unflinching support for virtually every action taken by a foreign government don’t make any sense to me. There would never be a similar Christian group dedicated to boosting the relationship with any other government, nor should there be one. The simple reason for this is that it makes no sense for Christians to have such a strong attachment to any other country besides their own, especially when Christians are taught that they are sojourners in this world. The enthusiasm for the current state of Israel is at best a gross misinterpretation of Scripture, and at worst the substitution of a secular ideological agenda for Christian teaching.

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Substituting Storytelling for Foreign Policy

Peter Beinart flagged a telling quote from Hillary Clinton’s interview on the Daily Show last week:

What I found when I became secretary of state is that so many people in the world—especially young people—they had no memory of the United States liberating Europe and Asia, beating the Nazis, fighting the Cold War and winning, that was just ancient history. They didn’t know the sacrifices that we had made and the values that motivated us to do it. We have not been telling our story very well. We do have a great story. We are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let’s get back to telling it, to ourselves first and foremost, and believing it about ourselves and then taking that around the world.

Beinart commented incredulously:

As a vision for America’s relations with the world, this isn’t just unconvincing. It’s downright disturbing. It’s true that young people overseas don’t remember the Cold War. But even if they did, they still wouldn’t be inspired by America’s “great story about [promoting] human freedom, human rights, human opportunity.” That’s because in the developing world—where most of humanity lives—barely anyone believes that American foreign policy during the Cold War actually promoted those things. What they mostly remember is that in anticommunism’s name, from Pakistan to Guatemala to Iran to Congo, America funded dictators and fueled civil wars.

That’s a perfectly fair point, but Clinton’s error goes beyond feigning ignorance about what the U.S. did during the Cold War and how other nations view those actions. Her emphasis is entirely on rhetoric and messaging, as if other nations weren’t buying “our story” because we haven’t been telling it to them often enough or in the right way. This reminds me of the Bush administration’s dubious efforts to promote U.S. foreign policy by way of spin-doctoring by Karen Hughes. Leon Hadar wrote about the multiple failures of this venture back in 2005:

Indeed, as the famed marketing guru made clear in his workshop, “You can’t sell a soap that doesn’t wash.” Or to apply that overused cliché, “It’s the policy, stupid.” Sworn in early in September, Hughes became the latest top official charged with repairing a U.S. image abroad soured by the war in Iraq and complaints in Europe and the Middle East over Bush’s policies and leadership. In fact, she is the third person that President Bush has appointed to this position since 9/11—more proof that what the White House needs is not another Madison Avenue PR executive or K Street spinmeister. Hughes’s predecessors—Charlotte Beers, a successful advertising hand who helped produce a pathetic propaganda film targeted at Muslim audiences, and Margaret Tutwiler, Secretary of State James Baker’s impressive spokeswoman, were driven out of office not because they couldn’t get a handle on the mechanisms of public diplomacy as a way of fostering goodwill toward the United States and its culture and values.

The assumption behind those efforts and Clinton’s remarks is that the world just needs to hear “our story” told accurately, and their view of how the U.S. conducts itself around the world would quickly improve. There’s a vague belief that the U.S. needs to communicate with foreign publics, but there is absolutely no idea how to go about combating anti-American sentiment because there is such a poor understanding of the causes of that sentiment. Changing the substance of policies is never seriously considered, because there is little or no recognition that these policies need correction or reversal. This takes for granted that opposition to U.S. policies is mostly the product of misunderstanding or miscommunication rather than an expression of genuinely divergent interests and grievances. I don’t know that Clinton is naive or oblivious enough to believe this (I doubt it), but it’s instructive that she thinks this is a good argument to make publicly. She is more or less saying that there is nothing wrong with U.S. foreign policy that can’t be fixed by better marketing and salesmanship, and that’s just profoundly wrong. It’s also what we should expect from someone as conventionally hawkish and “centrist” on foreign policy as Clinton is.

Another curious omission in that quote is the complete neglect of the last twenty years of U.S. policies overseas. Clinton tells us what people in around the world think of as “ancient history,” but fails to mention the impression that more recent U.S. actions abroad have made on public opinion in other countries. If she had, she would have to acknowledge that U.S. activism around the world over the last two decades has produced much of the resentment and resistance against America that we see today, and that the things that people in many nations remember best about U.S. foreign policy from recent years reflects very poorly on us. That’s not because we haven’t been telling “our story” to anyone who will listen, but that U.S. policies have been causing harm in many parts of the world to the point where large numbers of people in many nations no longer care about or believe what our government has to say.

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The Ends Still Don’t Justify the Means

Yishai Schwartz makes a terrible argument in support of Israel’s military operation in Gaza:

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack [bold mine-DL].

This is less straightforwardly awful than the op-ed I criticized last night, but it is nonetheless perverse. Schwartz is defending the use of indiscriminate force in a densely populated area by saying that it is necessary to do this to keep us from living in a world where indiscriminate force is used. It is taken for granted that “the moral” should be protected from indiscriminate violence, whereas the population that is now under attack from “the moral” evidently should not. Schwartz makes it seem as if Israel’s government has no choice in any of this, but it does. Terror groups will always try to twist morality to their own ends, which is why they are so despicable, but the answer to this is not to mimic them by carrying out attacks that can’t be justified. Consider this example, and ask yourself if you find this morally defensible:

When the strike leveled a four-story house in the southern Gaza Strip the night before, it also killed 25 members of four family households — including 19 children — gathered to break the daily Ramadan fast together. Relatives said it also killed a guest of the family, identified by an Israeli human rights group as a member of the Hamas military wing, ostensibly Israel’s target.

One could hardly ask for a more clear example of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force in this operation than this.

In general, whenever someone tries to elevate a local conflict into something grand and important to the entire world, that person is usually trying to change the subject and mislead his audience into supporting his preferred side in that conflict. If the operation in Gaza is seen as serving a nobler, higher end, that is somehow supposed to mitigate its obvious futility, stupidity, and injustice. The essence of the argument is this: “We have to be prepared to kill these civilians for the sake of future civilians.” If we just pretend that the conflict is a struggle for high-minded principles, that is supposed to make us more comfortable with actions that trample on those same principles and on the dignity of other human beings. One cannot defend “a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory” by repeatedly violating that morality. Not only do these tactics make a mockery of the justification being offered for them, but this is ultimately the most immoral of arguments that the ends justify the means.

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Non-Combatants and Gaza

Thane Rosenbaum unintentionally endorses the logic of every terrorist group in history:

On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

This is perverse and absolutely wrong, but it’s the sort of argument that one will end up making in order to defend a military operation that has already killed hundreds of non-combatants. Civilian deaths reportedly make up the overwhelming majority of Palestinian casualties in Gaza over the last few weeks, and these have resulted from the indiscriminate use of force in a densely populated area. More to the point, Rosenbaum’s argument is extremely similar to the justifications that terrorist groups use when they target civilians in their own attacks. It is based on the completely false assumption that there are no real innocents or bystanders in a given country because of their previous political support for a government and its policies, which supposedly makes it permissible to strike non-military targets. It is very important to reject this logic no matter where it comes from or whose cause in a conflict it is being used to advance, because this is the logic that has been used to justify countless atrocities down through the years.

Rosenbaum muddies the waters a bit by talking about civilians when he is really talking about non-combatants. Non-combatant status can be forfeited only by becoming a combatant, and that doesn’t happen by having voted for the current rulers or simply by living under their rule. Forfeiting non-combatant status requires taking up arms or directly lending aid to those that are fighting, and that doesn’t appear to apply to the civilian victims killed during the current operation at all. It may please Hamas to make use of these victims’ deaths for their own purposes, but that doesn’t absolve the Israeli government of its responsibility for causing those deaths. If Hamas benefits politically from these civilian deaths, and it seems likely that they do, it would seem obvious that Israel should not want to cause any more, and yet at each step over the last few weeks Israel’s government has responded with tactics that are guaranteed to continue killing many more non-combatants for as long as this operation continues.

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Grassroots Republicans and Foreign Policy Reform

Jim Antle considers the prospects for Republican foreign policy reform. He writes that hawkish arguments still have greater emotional appeal with rank-and-file Republicans:

But it is equally true that even today the arguments marshaled by reflexive hawks hit the right emotional buttons for the Republican grassroots in a way that more dovish conservatives’ appeals for caution, prudence, and restraint frequently do not.

Based on what I’ve seen, that depends heavily on what the issue under debate happens to be. Proposed interventions and other policies that have little or nothing directly to do with U.S. security understandably leave grassroots Republicans cold. The fact that their policy and political elites are constantly trying to sell them on new conflicts to join and new international causes for the U.S. to take up may be gradually having the unintended effect of making Republicans sick of hearing about the need to “do something” in response to virtually every crisis around the world. Far from hitting the right emotional buttons, hawkish arguments may now be grating on the nerves of a very large number of Republicans.

When intervention in Syria was being debated last year, like most other Americans most Republicans were remarkably immune to the arguments that the U.S. had to take military action for the sake of our “credibility.” Invoking “credibility” is one of the most common hawkish rhetorical moves, but most Republicans evidently found it a very poor justification for resorting to the use of force. Even taking the inevitable partisan reasons for opposition into account, Republican opposition to attacking Syria was impressively high. Republican aversion to deeper involvement in Ukraine was almost as great as that of other Americans. If some Republicans still respond favorably to boilerplate hawkish claims, just as many now seem to be rejecting them.

There is also broader skepticism among many conservatives and other right-leaning Americans that the U.S. has the ability to remedy international problems, which should make them very receptive to the case for restraint. Except among so-called “business conservatives,” there would seem to be little confidence that U.S. involvement overseas is beneficial. I would assume that there is likewise little support among conservatives for the conviction that the world’s problems are made worse by an absence of U.S. “leadership.” In fact, socially conservative populist Republicans are more likely to believe that U.S. involvement makes international problems worse:

Majorities in Three Groups Say U.S. Global Efforts Make Problems Worse

Except when it concerns direct security threats to the U.S., rank-and-file Republicans are not really all that receptive to knee-jerk hawkish demands for greater U.S. involvement overseas, and in that respect they are not all that different from the rest of the country. That suggests that there is less of a need for non-interventionists and conservative realists to pander to an imagined hawkish audience and a much greater need to articulate a coherent alternative to the alarmism and threat inflation that so often pass for foreign policy arguments on the right.

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How the U.S. Keeps Enabling Reckless Clients

Shashank Joshi criticizes the slow U.S. response to the conflict in Gaza:

Eleven days ago, discussing the paucity of possible mediators, I warned that “unless someone steps up, Israel and Hamas could find themselves hurtling into a wider war that neither truly wants”. This is precisely what has happened. Those with leverage over the combatants [bold mine-DL] have shown themselves to be every bit as useless as I feared.

Although US President Barack Obama has called for an “immediate ceasefire”, and US Secretary of State John Kerry was caught on tape sarcastically criticising Israel (“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. We’ve got to get over there. I think we ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around”), Washington has been unpardonably slow to act. There is no sign that the White House did anything to caution Israel against escalation, and only today – Monday – has Kerry travelled to Cairo.

Joshi makes many fair points here, but there is unfortunately nothing surprising or unusual in Washington’s tardiness in half-heartedly trying to restrain its client. U.S. politicians make ritual declarations of support for Israel’s “right to defend itself,” which is expanded as needed to apply to whatever Israel happens to be doing, and then some of them later call for restraint after the client escalates the conflict with their blessing. The calls are usually too late to do any good, and they are always ignored anyway because the client government knows that it won’t suffer any consequences for paying no attention to them. Despite being complicit in what Israel does during its military operations, the U.S. tries to create the impression that it is not fully endorsing Israeli actions. Washington does this for the benefit of the international audience, but I don’t think very many people outside the U.S. are buying it. This leads to an odd arrangement of giving the client a blank check on the one hand and feigning shock at the client’s excess on the other.

He refers to the leverage that the U.S. has over Israel, but he and everyone else knows perfectly well that the U.S. won’t use whatever leverage it has to get Israel to halt its current operation (or to do anything else). U.S. clients know they can behave however they wish, and U.S. aid will continue to flow because enough people in the U.S. have convinced themselves that we cannot afford to “lose” these clients. We saw something similar in the wake of the coup in Egypt: the U.S. was never willing to cut off aid to Egypt or seriously penalize its military for what it had done for fear of “losing” Egypt, so any leverage the U.S. might have thought it had was useless. Washington didn’t want to risk losing its limited influence, and in the end had none at all. Likewise, everyone involved knows that the U.S. will never cut off its aid to Israel or firmly oppose its actions even when Washington may consider them to be foolish, because the administration and members of Congress are much more anxious to demonstrate their support for Israel than they are interested in putting conditions on that support. The U.S. doesn’t really have any leverage over its clients because there is absolutely no desire in Washington to use the aid it provides to make the clients change their behavior. The U.S. enables the reckless behavior of clients with its unconditional support, and its clients will keep behaving recklessly for as long as they can do so with impunity.

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