Home/Daniel Larison/Do the Public and ‘the Blob’ Want the Same Things?

Do the Public and ‘the Blob’ Want the Same Things?

Council on Foreign Relations Headquarters, New York City (Wikimedia Commons)

Dan Drezner jumps to a shaky conclusion on public opinion and foreign policy:

What is striking about arguments like these is the near-complete absence of any discussion of public opinion polling to buttress their argument. If the Blob’s policy preferences are truly disconnected from those of the American public, that would be a powerful populist talking point. This has been made in the past with a heavy reliance on polling data. Both Trumpists and progressives should be trumpeting public opinion surveys from the rooftops that highlight the disconnect with the Blob.

They are not doing that, however, and I think I know why. It turns out that what the American people want in foreign policy looks an awful lot like what the Blob wants.

I am neither a Trumpist nor a progressive, but I do advocate for foreign policy restraint, so it may be worth noting that I have called attention to public opinion surveys that show that most Americans want a more restrained foreign policy. These surveys do not show that most Americans want “what the Blob wants.” Quite the contrary. The disconnect with “the Blob” is hard to miss.

The findings of the Eurasia Group Foundation’s survey point to the very “chasm” between the public and foreign policy experts that Drezner says doesn’t really exist:

A new, national survey commissioned by the Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF) reveals the American public supports a more restrained approach to international relations and military interventions. However, this desire for a more focused foreign policy is at odds with the more expansive role generally favored by foreign policy experts.

A separate study commissioned by the Center for American Progress found a similar preference for what they call “restrained engagement”:

The findings in this survey suggest that American voters are not isolationist. Rather, voters are more accurately described as supporting “restrained engagement” in international affairs—a strategy that favors diplomatic, political, and economic actions over military action when advancing U.S. interests in the world. American voters want their political leaders to make more public investments in the American people in order to compete in the world and to strike the right balance abroad after more than a decade of what they see as military overextension.

In contrast to much of the debate among political leaders and foreign policy experts today, voters in this survey express little interest in the processes and tactics of foreign policy or the workings of international alliances and institutions. They generally support cooperation and engagement with allies, but these are not top-tier objectives on their own.

One example of the “chasm” between foreign policy experts and the public from the EGF survey concerned the appropriate response to atrocities committed by foreign governments:

While there is some support among the surveyed experts for a restrained approach or a U.N.-led response, a large majority of them favors U.S.-led intervention (61%). The public leans heavily in the opposite direction with 43% in favor of restraint and 34% that prefer a U.N.-led response. When it comes to deciding when to initiate interventions and attack other states, there clearly is a yawning gap between the public and the foreign policy establishment. The latter is much more open to unilateral or U.S.-led military action in this instance.

The EGF survey found a similar gap when they asked about the prospect of retaliation in the event of an attack on a NATO ally:

While there is a slight majority in favor of retaliation, the public is much more evenly divided. The foreign policy experts are almost unanimously in favor. The gap is real and it is huge. Using Bremmer’s categories, we see that expressed again in preferences for the U.S. role in the world:

Roughly half of the experts prefer America as the “indispensable nation” compared with less than 10% of the public. The “independent” America that is most closely identified with foreign policy restraint has the backing of 44% of the public and just 9% of the experts. One can argue that the experts are right and the public is wrong, or vice versa, but one cannot say that they all want the same thing.

Drezner cites public opinion on Syria as evidence in favor of the proposition that the public and “the Blob” are much more closely aligned than critics of “the Blob” allow, but this is not as compelling as he thinks it is. He finds that opinion at the start of this year was evenly split between pro- and anti-withdrawal blocs. The Pew poll he cites breaks down the responses by political affiliation, and there is a clear partisan split with far more Republicans in favor of withdrawal and most Democrats opposed. Most of the respondents are reacting to the proposed withdrawal in a partisan fashion: Democrats opposed it because Trump supposedly wanted it, and Republicans supported it for the same reason. There is now apparently more opposition to withdrawal, but that is presumably informed by the arbitrary and incompetent way in which the quasi-withdrawal has been executed. It may also be influenced by the fact that Trump’s so-called withdrawal isn’t really a withdrawal, but just a chaotic redeployment that may end up leaving more U.S. troops in Syria than before. That is not surprising. The public tends to turn against policies that are being carried out ineptly, no matter what their other policy preferences might be. The association with the increasingly unpopular Trump is probably also causing more people to reject whatever it is they think the president favors.

To understand the gap between foreign policy establishment and the public on Syria, we need to look at Americans’ views over many years. Most Americans have been strongly against U.S. involvement in Syria over the years. The popular backlash against the proposed attack on the Syrian government in 2013 was strong enough that it blocked the intervention from happening. Many people in the foreign policy establishment have been calling for a more activist and interventionist Syria policy from the earliest days of the war in Syria, and there has been tremendous resistance from the public for almost all of this time. Obama caught ten kinds of hell from “the Blob” for his entire second term because he would not commit the U.S. to the larger role in the Syrian war that so many of them were demanding. Support for fighting ISIS from the air is the only thing that has consistently commanded broad support. When it comes on whether to send U.S. forces into a conflict, the public has consistently been much more reluctant to support this than the foreign policy establishment, and that is especially true when there don’t appear to be any vital U.S. interests at stake.

Drezner concludes:

None of this is to say that the Blob or the American people are right about any particular foreign policy issue. I am all for serious debates about the future of American foreign policy. But advocates of restraint need to stop claiming that the Blob is acting in an undemocratic manner. Because it just ain’t so.

Our objection to Syria policy isn’t so much that “the Blob” is behaving in an undemocratic way as it is that the U.S. government has illegally involved itself in a war in Syria for the last five years without Congressional authorization or any legal justification whatsoever. U.S. forces were sent into Syria without the consent of the American people and our representatives, and they have been kept there all this time without that consent. If that doesn’t demonstrate that our foreign policy today has become far too undemocratic, I don’t know what would. If most Americans now disapprove of the Trump administration’s haphazard, clownish management of Syria policy, that does not mean that they agree with “the Blob” about the larger policy questions. The divide between the public and “the Blob” is quite large on some of the most important questions, and if there is occasional agreement on a specific issue that shouldn’t cause us to forget how wide that divide is.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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