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Has Rand Paul’s Moment Already Passed?

The opportunity to dramatically change American foreign policy may have died with James Foley.
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Public opinion is volatile, shifting erratically in response to the most recent developments at home and abroad, argued American political philosopher Walter Lippmann as he studied the American public’s attitudes on issues of war and peace during the first part of the 20th century.

Analyzing the dramatic shifts in American opinion toward possible U.S. intervention in the war in Europe in the early 1940s—from an isolationist mood to a pro-war sentiments—Lippmann observed that the public tended to be “too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiations or too intransigent.”

Not unlike George Kennan and other proponents of a Realpolitik approach to international relations, Lippmann concluded that the domain of foreign policy making should be in the hands of an educated and skilled elite—what we now refer to as the Foreign Policy Establishment—and that the masses should not be allowed to intrude into the business of managing U.S. relationship with the rest of the world.

When it comes to foreign policy, the job of the Best and the Brightest, and that included the elite press to which Lippmann belonged, should be to “educate”—read: manipulate—the public to support the decisions by the government to go to war or to make peace.

Anyone who examined the recent dramatic shifts in the American public attitudes towards military intervention abroad would have to concur with Lippmann’s observations about the volatility of American public opinion.

Indeed, the proverbial Man from Mars who only a year ago would return from a visit to the United States concluding that American people were exhausted of fighting never-ending wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, would clearly be surprised to discover during a more recent excursion to this country that Americans are now in a warmongering mood.

Even more amazing has been the transformation of the America public’s attitudes towards President Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda. For more than four years, it seemed that the views on war and peace shared by the Democratic White House occupant who had run for office in 2008 blasting President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, were aligned with those of the general public. And that the bellicose interventionist positions of leading Republicans like Sen. John McCain have become quite passé and so out of touch of the let’s-mind-our-business sentiments of a clear majority of Americans. Sen. Rand Paul, with his skepticism about the cost-effectiveness of U.S. military interventions, was riding high as the Republican alternative to McCain.

It would be an exaggeration to describe Obama as an antiwar president. His rhetoric and occasionally his policies—the decision to use force to oust Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi comes to mind—reflected the liberal internationalist and pro-humanitarian intervention views of leading Democrats, including those serving in his administration.

But in many ways, President Obama’s earlier decision not to use military force against the regime of Syria’s Bashar Assad and to embrace a deal advanced by Russia to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons was seen at the time as almost historic. The White House rejecting pressures from both the members of the foreign policy establishment, not to mention the McCain Republicans, as well as from allies abroad, including the Europeans, the Saudis, and the Israelis, to deploy U.S. military power—while enjoying the support of most Americans for the decision.

But that was then. As Americans (or some of them) are preparing to cast their ballots in the midterm elections, one of the most intriguing findings observed by pollsters has been that the reason why many voters would support Republicans candidates on Election Day was that the perception that President Obama was “weak” on foreign policy and that the GOP would prove to be more effective in responding to foreign threats, including the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a more assertive foreign policy being pursued by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and even the Ebola epidemic.

The conventional wisdom has been that the images of the beheading of two American journalists by an ISIS executioner as well as those of the numerous atrocities committed by the group may have brought about the dramatic changes in public attitudes.

Indeed, such changes don’t have to be triggered by traumatic events as the attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The botched attempt by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 to rescue the 52 diplomats held captive at the American Embassy in Tehran, and the ensuing humiliating public debacle which damaged U.S. global prestige, played a major role in stirring the political backlash against Carter.

The beheading of the two journalists that was seen as part of a ineffectual response by the Obama administration to the rise of ISIS has made it easier for McCain Republicans and the rest of Washington’s warrior class to “Carterize” Obama. That both presidents had also to deal with aggressive moves by Moscow—then in Afghanistan, now in Ukraine—not to mention their miserable economic record is helping to perpetuate the Obama-is-Carter analogy.

It would be interesting to speculate what would have happened if President Obama—or for that matter, Senator Paul in the context of the debate among Republicans and conservatives—would have signaled earlier on a complete break with the reigning foreign policy consensus instead of offering a few attempts at modifying it.

For example, neither of the two has called for a reassessment of American policy in the Middle East, in terms of our engagement there and our strategic commitments. Why are we there and should we continue to be there? That the United States should continue to be involved there was accepted as a given by both Obama and Paul, with the debate centering only on the means available to maintain U.S. role there. To give aid to the Syrian rebels or not? Boots on the ground in Iraq or not? To revive or not to revive the “peace process?”

At the end of the day, without a reexamination of the U.S. role in the Middle East (or in Eastern Europe or in East Asia), foreign policy inertia sets in as American engagement—including the media coverage that follows it—helps create the conditions for more escalation, including American casualties, provoking more belligerent attitudes among Americans.

So it’s not surprising that the demand in the market of Republican politics will be now for an assertive foreign policy figure a la Ronald Reagan. And yes, I know that in reality Reagan was more accommodative on foreign policy issues than either critics or supporters give him credit. But the fact remains that his message when he ran for office was very hawkish.

That doesn’t mean that we should expect a resurgence of the neoconservative/ Wilsonian school of thought. Most Americans, including members of the foreign policy establishment, have given up on the idea of nation building in, and exporting democracy to, the Middle East. So my guess is that we are going to see more of President Bush I’s Realpolitik types in any Republican administration, and less of President Bush II’s crusaders. But the hopes for the kind of a new foreign policy that some libertarians and conservatives were yearning for have been dashed.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.



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