Friday, September 13, 2013

America's "inward turn" is moderate and proportionate

It's hard to deny, as Roger Cohen charges, that Obama and his surrogates have whipsawed the world with mixed signals in the wake of the Syrian government's chemical weapons attack on August 21. But Cohen overstates the case and its consequences when claiming that Obama's "dithering"
marked a moment when America signaled an inward turn that leaves the world anchorless.

The president has reflected the mood in America. Almost two-thirds of people surveyed think the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, according to a recent New York Times/CBS news poll. Principle backed by credible force made the United States the anchor of global security since 1945 and set hundreds of millions of people free. Obama has deferred to a growing isolationism. His wavering has looked like acquiescence to a global power shift.
The Times/CBS poll result cited raised my eyebrows too. Specifically, 62% said that the U.S. should not "take the leading role among all other countries in the world in trying to solves international conflicts," while just 34% said that the U.S. should do so. Perhaps even more striking, when asked,  "should the United States try to change a dictatorship to a democracy where it can, OR should the United States stay out of other countries' affairs?" 15% said "try to change," while 72% said "stay out."

So U.S. "isolationism" is "growing." But growing from what?  The Times/CBS pollsters have been asking the first question since September 2002, when the Bush administration was selling its prospective war in Iraq and was pretty fresh off an apparent quick victory in Afghanistan. You could say that the U.S. was at the peak of post-9/11 triumphalism.  At that point, 45% said that the U.S. should "take the leading role," while 49% said it should not.  A drop from 45% to 34% is significant, no doubt. But it strikes me as quite moderate in light of the decade of disastrous war that followed.

The second question, about changing dictatorships, has a longer history --it's been asked since 1986, at the tail end of the Cold War -- before the Soviet empire started to melt away. In that year, 28% said "try to change" -- and 62% said "stay out." Support for transforming dictatorships peaked at 29% in 1989, when dictatorships were transforming in Eastern Europe. It approached that peak again, in the fairly early going in Iraq, at 27% in 2005.  Then it rolled down a bluff -- I wouldn't say fell off a cliff -- to 18% in 2006 when chaos in Iraq was approaching its peak. Again, the shifts are moderate, commensurate with events. Americans, probably like most peoples worldwide, are not in favor of wars of choice, or military action for anything other than defense of vital interests.

These numbers suggest to me that there is a decades-long disconnect between U.S. defense spending and Americans' view of America's appropriate role in world affairs. U.S. military spending is 40% of the world's total and exceeds that of the next fifteen largest spenders combined. That disproportion makes U.S. leadership in trying to solve world conflict almost inevitable.  The military-industrial complex is indeed the tail that wags the semi-democratic dog. The Beltway consensus that America always should take the lead in resolving conflict worldwide -- exemplified by Cohen -- is at odds with consistent majority sentiment.

What Cohen calls "isolationism" is really a stable preference for avoiding unnecessary conflict. That preference strengthens after debacles and eases a bit after real or apparent military successes.

P.S. I suspect that question wording may exaggerate the divide between the electorate and the elite. Trying to "change" a dictatorship into a democracy is a Bushlike extreme.  Perhaps most Americans favor working to foster democracy by a variety of means -- though, come to think of it, the near-universal hostility to the foreign aid budget suggests otherwise.  Time to call in the political scientist with more nuanced data.

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