Home/Daniel Larison/Sympathy Is Not What Creates Policy

Sympathy Is Not What Creates Policy

But I think Mead is badly mischaracterizing the realist position with respect to Israel. Indeed, I think Mead does realists a disservice by suggesting that they’re confused by America’s support for Israel when most realists themselves support an alliance with Israel. They just do not support the way the relationship is currently configured. Surely Mead is not suggesting that America’s current policy status quo is the only possible “pro-Israel” policy the U.S. could formulate? ~Greg Scoblete

Scoblete is responding to this Mead post. Of course Mead mischaracterizes the position of realists. When the alternative explanations he has for realist views are stupidity or prejudice (all the while claiming that he would not presume to inquire into anyone’s motives), there is a good chance that there might be some mischaracterization going on. Since Mead never names any of the realists he is attacking, we shouldn’t assume that he’s arguing against views that any realist actually holds. Indeed, the position he wastes his time “refuting” is held by no one of consequence.

At one point, Mead writes:

American politicians vote for pro-Israel policies because that is what voters want them to do.

Does Mead really believe that this is how U.S. foreign policy is made? Mead emphasizes that Americans have sympathized with Israelis more than with their enemies for sixty years, which I have already pointed out does not necessarily mean very much about what they think U.S. policy should be. They might very well have sympathized more with the Bosnians than the Serbs during the 1990s, because government and the media told the public an extremely simplified, moralizing story in which the former were simply democrats and victims and the latter were authoritarians and villains, but that doesn’t mean that most Americans must have also wanted the U.S. to take the Bosnian side.

Despite what Mead says, the U.S.-Israel relationship was nowhere near as close for the first twenty years of Israel’s statehood as it is today. If Mead’s explanation were correct, fairly consistent sympathy for Israel over its enemies ought to have always translated into consistently pro-Israel policies of the sort we have now, but the story over the last sixty years has been rather different. Indeed, until the 1970s the relationship was quite different and much less close than it has been since then. As Gallup’s numbers showed, a majority of the American public did not always have the pro-Israel sympathies that Mead assumes have always been driving U.S. Israel policy.

We might as well claim that Washington’s pro-Nationalist stance in China was the natural result of the public’s hostility to communism, and we might then pretend that the tilt towards Beijing and away from Taipei was also the result of a change in public opinion in favor of the communists, but this would be nonsense. Even after 1991, Americans had no great interest in Iraq, but Washington remained obsessed with it, and after over a decade of sanctions, the air war during the ’90s and a steady diet of propaganda most of the public was perfectly willing to back whatever action against Iraq Washington proposed to them. Congress didn’t pass the Iraq Liberation Act because voters were demanding it. On the contrary, the public had been conditioned for years by the government’s hostile attitude and negative media coverage to accept the idea that Iraq was a serious threat and to accept the idea of regime change in Iraq. Public sentiment trails and tracks policy far more often than policy is driven by public sentiment.

Washington makes policy decisions based on a number of factors, one of which is the political pressure that advocacy groups and activists can bring to bear, but it is not normally making foreign policy based on “what voters want them to do.” Washington has not expanded NATO twice because this was what voters wanted. Washington did not negotiate a nuclear technology exchange deal with India because this was what voters wanted. Our government certainly did not make alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia because of strong pro-Egyptian and pro-Saudi sentiment at home! Perhaps a relative handful of voters care deeply about these issues, but except in a small number of districts this has no effect on members of Congress. Right or wrong, these decisions were the products of a mix of industry and foreign lobbying, perceived state interests, some measure of ideology and the absence of strong countervailing political forces. There may not necessarily be anything wrong with this, but it is a far cry from a majority of the public wanting something done and having it enacted as policy. Self-interested members of Congress aren’t going to go out on a limb with strong opposition to a policy unless there are incentives that make it worth their while to anger the interest groups that have a stake in that policy. When all of the pressure and activism are on one side of an issue, most members are not going to cause trouble for themselves by voting against the activists’ preferred legislation.

One could point to any number of policies and alliances that Washington maintains and find that none of them was driven by the wishes of the electorate. Like other areas of policy in which a bipartisan Washington consensus prevails, and like areas of policy that supposedly require a fairly significant amount of specialized knowledge, foreign policy is among the most insulated from “what the voters want.” This is partly because administrations of both parties try to maintain continuity in policy regardless of what their party bases want, and this is partly because most voters are not going to be informed and interested enough to bring pressure on the government to make policy one way or another. This means that the public is largely going to accept the foreign policy it is given, and this foreign policy will be shaped to a significant degree by very active, interested and organized advocates who are on one side of a given issue.

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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