Home/Daniel Larison/Interventionists Ignore Public Opinion at Their Peril

Interventionists Ignore Public Opinion at Their Peril

Richard Cohen uses a very strange example to berate Obama for his “inaction” on Syria:

Recently, Obama has been likened to President Dwight Eisenhower. There are, of course, some similarities — there always are — but in one significant way, cited in the book by David A. Nichols (“Eisenhower 1956”), they’re different. In the Suez crisis of 1956, Ike strongly condemned the invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel — three allies — even though some thought it was politically unwise to do so. “I don’t give a damn how the election goes,” he told British Prime Minister Anthony Eden on Election Day itself. His paramount concerns, he said, were the revolution in Hungary and the Suez invasion.

At the moment, it’s impossible to imagine Obama making a comparable statement.

This quote crops up from time to time when someone wants to contrast Eisenhower’s focus on policy matters with a later president’s ostensibly excessive obsession with domestic politics. Of course, it was extremely easy for Eisenhower to tell Eden this on Election Day. The election had long since been won, and Stevenson was trounced by and even larger margin than he had been the first time. The 1956 election is one of the bigger blowouts in the popular vote in modern U.S. history. Stevenson carried just seven states, and he failed to carry his home state of Illinois. So in that sense Eisenhower didn’t have to pay attention to any potential domestic fallout from his decisions, because his re-election was never in doubt.

Regardless, the substance of Eisenhower’s decisions in 1956 was right. He chose correctly to refrain from supporting the Hungarian uprising once it was being crushed (though his administration had erred in creating false expectations of aid), and he chose correctly to oppose the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt. Had Cohen been writing then, he would have excoriated Ike for his inaction in the first case and presumably for his disloyalty in the other. He would have been wrong then, just as he is today when he tries to goad Obama into increasing U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war.

It may be that Obama’s decision to stay out of Syria was based partly in an electoral calculation. Put another way, he chose not to ignore the public’s overwhelming opposition to greater involvement in Syria. Cohen would like Obama to say something like, “I don’t give a damn what the public wants” and plunge the U.S. deeper into the fighting in Syria one way or another. It’s not only the wrong recommendation on the merits, but it reflects remarkable disdain for public opinion. No prolonged overseas military commitment stands a chance of succeeding without substantial, sustained public support, so it’s particularly foolish to pay public opinion no mind. Interventionists are the ones that should be more attentive to what the public wants, since they are the ones trying to sell Americans on policies that will entail new and unnecessary costs and risks.

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.

leave a comment

Latest Articles