- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Taking Sides

There is broad, bipartisan support for Israel in the United States. ~Greg Scoblete [1]

No country favors taking Israel’s side, including the United States [bold mine-DL], where 71 percent favor taking neither side. ~WorldPublicOpinion.org [2]

The Gallup survey asked [3] respondents whether their “sympathies” are more with Israelis or Palestinians. Of course a vast majority will say that their sympathies are with the Israelis. The result would necessarily be lopsided because the question is bound to elicit such a result. The question isn’t being asked in a vacuum, and it isn’t actually a question about what U.S. policy ought to be.

Leaving aside existing cultural and religious reasons for such sympathy, the vast majority of media portrayals of the conflict encourage such sympathy. Our political class is virtually unanimous in casting the conflict in very simple terms that reinforce this sympathy. Are we more likely to sympathize with the modern, Western, industrialized, democratic nation-state whose people’s history is related to ours or with a stateless refugee nation of Arabs whose members mostly belong to a religion a large number of Americans regard unfavorably? The high degree of sympathy the public has now is the product of decades of advocacy, rhetoric and political pressure in our domestic debate almost entirely on one side of a foreign conflict. Pro-Israel sympathy was not always as great as it is now. Not so long ago, it used to be much lower.

The Gallup numbers show us this. If we look at the late ’80s on their graph, we see that just 37% sympathized with Israel, 15% sympathized with the Palestinians and 49% sympathized with neither side. As recently as 1997, the “neither” result was 54%. We do see sympathy for Israel spike in times of conflict. Before and during the Gulf War, the sympathy for Israel figure shot up to 64%, it rose during the second intifada, and after 9/11 over the last eight and a half years it has risen steadily to its current level. However, during the late ’80s and for much of the ’90s the “broad, bipartisan support” Scoblete points to in the recent survey was not there. Pro-Israel sympathy has commanded a majority of the public for less than half the time in the last 22 years, but it has been the constant, default position of virtually every national politician for at least that long.

In fact, if we distinguish between sympathy and actively wanting to take Israel’s side, real support is still actually much more limited. If we believe the WPO survey, there is definitely a difference between broad sympathy and the kind of support for Israel that the U.S. actually provides. According to the WPO survey, just 21% favor taking Israel’s side in the conflict and 71% prefer taking neither side. That suggests broad, probably bipartisan support for disentangling ourselves from the conflict all together. It also means that U.S. policy on this question does not simply flow from the will of the people. This 21% is the real constituency for current U.S. policy. This is a sizeable constituency that has effectively advocated and organized to make a one-sided approach to the conflict practically unquestionable in domestic policy debates. They and the policies they advocate do not represent the broad majority of Americans, even though a broad majority of Americans is now much more favorably disposed towards Israel than they once were.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Taking Sides"

#1 Comment By Norwegian Shooter On February 25, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

Relying on the “sympathy” poll and another asking for “favorable / unfavorable” ratings for one country at a time, [4]:

“This brings us to a problem: why do so many people, especially self-described ‘realists’ when it comes to Middle East policy, find it mysterious that American foreign policy supports Israel? Surely in a democratic republic, when policy over a long period of time tracks with public sentiment, there is very little to explain. American politicians vote for pro-Israel policies because that is what voters want them to do. Case closed, I would think. Late breaking news flash: water runs downhill.”

The scare quotes tell you all you need to know about where he’s going. Oh, and the title of the post: “Middle East ‘Realists’: Anti-Semites or Just Dumb”

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On February 26, 2010 @ 12:23 am

That’s too bad. I’m sorry to see that.

I would have thought it was quite clear that the public’s views of other countries are shaped to a significant degree by the way they are portrayed in the press and by the government. Gallup just recorded that only 10% of the public has a favorable view of Iran–where did that negative view come from, if not from the daily vilification and fearmongering from government and media sources? It is true that foreign policy is constrained by public opinion in mass democracies in ways that it may not be in other systems. Kennan always regarded this as one of the problems of U.S. foreign policy.

Nonetheless, the idea that public opinion drives foreign policy decisions is flatly contradicted by the history of the last century. The public was not clamoring for entry into WWI, nor did they want to enter the second war. Their leaders pulled them along, sometimes deceiving them as they went, and dragged them into taking sides in conflicts in which they wanted no part. Anglophiles were hardly a majority of the population in the 1910s, and they were hardly an overwhelming force in the 1930s and early ’40s. They did, however, have more influence and clout than their domestic opponents.

Foreign policy is largely an elite concern, and it is policymaking elites who do far more to direct public opinion than public opinion does to direct what they decide to do. The public had no particular interest in Iraq, but after over a decade of a steady diet of propaganda and consistent hostility from successive administrations the public was more than happy to support the elimination of the “Iraqi threat.” Having been given encouragement to see Iran as a threat, the public has become much more belligerent and hostile towards Iran than policymakers themselves. The demagoguery foreign policy hawks use to whip up public support for aggressive actions can get out of their control and take on a life of its own. The same goes for mobilizing support for allies. As some point, it becomes self-sustaining and self-reinforcing.

#3 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On February 26, 2010 @ 2:01 am

A relatively small number of influential Zionists who care passionately about the matter overpower the majority for whom
the whole thing isn’t salient at all. Same reason, though different folks, we are still engaged in the futile Cuba boycott. Most people don’t care that much, but those who do are passionate and influential, though few in number.

#4 Comment By Jim Dooley On February 26, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

Let me see if I understand the question:
The question is with which people, the Israelis or the Palestinians, do I find myself in sympathy. The third choice is none of the above.
How the hell do I get out this one?
If I answer, why the Palestinians of course, I am an anti semite, meaning specifically that despite growing up shopping on Orchard Street and eating Katz’s hot dogs, I dislike, am averse to, indeed am hostile to, if I do not actually hate, jews. Better to explore the alternatives.
If I answer, none of the above, I am un-american because americans take a rooting interest in everything, and while Israel isn’t exactly the home team, it is, so to speak, our triple a farm club in …where did the man say Israel is again…oh, I’m supposed to already know that.
Well, this much I do know. My loyalties are with the good ole US of A first and foremost, on this one and on every one. Besides, Palestine, wherever that is, puts its hands on a Nuke and bada boom, it could be trouble for us too.
Okay. My answer is…Israel. I’m for Israel, and that’s my final answer.
I find myself relieved to hear the applause.