Home/Daniel Larison/There Is Still No Foreign Policy “Paradox”

There Is Still No Foreign Policy “Paradox”

Roger Cohen once again repeats a tiresome argument:

Yet many seem to feel Obama is selling the nation short. They want a president to lead, not be a mere conduit for their sentiments. Americans, as citizens of a nation that represents an idea, are optimistic by nature. It may be true that there is no good outcome in Syria, and certainly no easy one. It may be that Egyptian democracy had to be stillborn. It may be that Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea because he can. Still, Americans do not like the message that it makes sense to pull back and let the world do its worst.

This is another variant on the silly idea that there is a “paradox” in the public’s attitudes on foreign policy. According to this story, Obama has given Americans the foreign policy they say they want, but they now disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy, so we’re supposed to believe that there is a “strange duality” at work. Instead of coming to the much more straightforward conclusion that Obama is not giving Americans the foreign policy they want (and that his foreign policy is still too activist and meddlesome), elite interventionists of different stripes engage in a lot of groundless speculation that the public actually wants the same things that the interventionists themselves want. It’s not obvious that most Americans “want a president to lead” in this case. The obsession with such “leadership” is primarily one shared by elites, and their idea of “leadership” requires a degree of U.S. activism overseas that the public hasn’t supported for years. The public-elite gap on foreign policy has rarely been wider than it is now because most Americans have no real interest in the “leadership” role for the U.S. or the president that foreign policy elites demand.

The public’s views on these issues aren’t hard to figure out. There is a general aversion to major U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, and a clear preference to stay out of these conflicts wherever possible. When there is some support for ostensibly “limited” military action in certain cases, this is accompanied by worries that “limited” action will lead to too much unwanted involvement in the future:

Partisan Views of U.S. Actions in Iraq

These results don’t suggest a public that is worried about the president “selling the nation short.” On the contrary, there appears to be much more concern that the president’s decision will lead to a much more extensive and long-term commitment in Iraq than most Americans want the U.S. to have. I suspect most Americans would be pleased to hear that “it makes sense to pull back,” but no one in Washington is sending them that message.

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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