Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria [bold mine-DL] right now as economic concerns continue to dwarf all other issues, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Of course, there’s not really any evidence of “isolationism” in this poll. Overall, the public opposes starting wars in Syria and North Korea. I would be surprised and very worried if that weren’t the case. The only people who would seriously describe this position as “isolationist” are hard-liners and hawkish interventionists that like to describe everything other than their own position as some form of “isolationism” or “neo-isolationism.” Opposition to illegal and unnecessary wars is not a sign of “isolationism.” It means that most Americans have no interest in initiating wars, or at least they aren’t interested in doing so when these wars are not perceived to be important for U.S. security.
The North Korea results show no sign of “isolationism.” 15% of respondents make up a pro-war core out there that thinks military action against North Korea now is a good idea, while 56% believe North Korea can be contained. The worrisome result here is that there appears to be a small constituency for re-starting the Korean War. 21% answered that North Korea is “not a threat at this time” to the U.S. Of course, that’s the wrong question to ask. The issue isn’t whether North Korea is a threat to the U.S., but whether its leaders are reckless and self-destructive enough to attack North Korea’s neighbors. The vast majority of Americans seems to think that they are not.
The Syria results are not as clear as they could be on account of the wording of the question. The question reads, “Do you think the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and anti-government groups, or doesn’t the United States have this responsibility?” The results reflect strong opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria’s conflict, which has been true from the beginning of the uprising two years ago. My guess is that many of the respondents are accustomed to identifying “doing something” with military action. When interventionists demand that the U.S. “act,” this is almost always what they mean, and when they accuse an administration of “inaction” or “passivity” they are complaining that it has not yet taken military action. When asked this question, many respondents probably think they are being asked if the U.S. has a responsibility to take sides in another country’s civil war. A majority naturally answers no to that, because there is no such responsibility. If the same respondents were presented with a series of non-military options ranging from diplomatic efforts to humanitarian relief to sanctions, and they were asked again if the U.S. has a responsibility to do one or all of those things, the results would probably look very different. The public isn’t exhibiting an “isolationist streak.” The New York Times is asking poorly-worded questions.