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Kagan and the Delusions of American Hawks

Robert Kagan must be kidding:

So we return to the paradox: President Obama is supposedly conducting a foreign policy in tune with public opinion, yet his foreign policy is not popular.

The “paradox” can be explained very easily. Obama may be closer to the public’s preferences than his hawkish critics are, but on multiple issues he has still been far more hawkish or assertive than the public wants. Obama has kept the U.S. out of the war in Syria, except for the part where he very nearly dragged the U.S. into it over the objections of two-thirds of the country. Indeed, if Obama had not felt the pressure to go to Congress in the wake of Parliament’s refusal to support strikes on Syria, and if Congress had not strongly opposed the attack he was proposing, the U.S. would probably have been bombing Syria for the last six months. He has avoided getting the U.S. into new wars, except for the time when he decided to wage an unnecessary war in Libya without Congressional authorization for eight months.

Obama’s response to the Ukraine crisis has not been quite so ham-fisted and dangerous as the one that many hawks would like, but it has nonetheless involved the U.S. far more directly in the crisis than most Americans want, and it has entailed punitive measures that the public doesn’t support. So it’s not true that Obama has been conducting a foreign policy “in tune with public opinion.” He has only been conducting one that is somewhat less obnoxious to the majority of Americans than the available alternatives, and that simply isn’t going to be good enough to win over anyone that isn’t already committed to supporting him. When Obama was re-elected, Americans were led to expect that the U.S. would not be preoccupied with foreign conflicts and crises, and for most of Obama’s second term just the opposite has occurred.

Kagan’s explanation for the “paradox” is predictably absurd:

In short, they may want what Obama so far has been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.

So Kagan is now reduced to arguing that Americans are secretly ashamed that they don’t want the disastrous, costly kind of foreign policy that hawks support. Obviously, he has no evidence for this, and I have no idea how he would be able to prove such a fanciful claim. This is the sort of thing that hawks are compelled to argue after having lost the public’s trust on foreign policy. These hawks genuinely cannot imagine how most of their countrymen could prefer restraint, prudence, and peace in foreign policy to the series of disasters and pointless conflicts that hawks have given them over the last decade. Instead, we’re supposed to believe that Americans are embarrassed by their preference that the U.S. mind its own business.

Kagan continues:

Who knows what the public might have thought of Obama had gone through with his planned attack on Syria last August?

There is no way to know for sure, but no one can seriously believe that Obama would have benefited politically from waging an unnecessary war over the strenuous objections of both the public and Congress. It is far more likely that Obama’s approval rating would be even lower now, since the U.S. would probably still be in the middle of another unpopular war. The only people that would have been satisfied by a war against Syria are the people that are otherwise hostile to Obama, but it wouldn’t have made them say that they approve of Obama. Meanwhile, many of the people that still support Obama would have had one more reason to turn against him. As an analysis of public opinion, Kagan’s argument is absolutely worthless. As a window onto the delusions of American hawks, it is very instructive.

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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