The American public is usually wrong on foreign policy. It takes leadership to understand that, deal with it and still do the right thing.
In the 2012 presidential race, the Romney campaign, for which I worked as a senior strategist, regularly asked a series of routine questions about issues that mattered most to voters. No doubt the Obama campaign asked similar questions, and I’m sure their findings mirrored ours.
As an example, here are numbers from a Romney poll taken in mid-October, before the “Foreign Policy” debate, the third debate of the general election. It showed results that were fairly constant throughout the election.
When voters were asked:
And, which ONE of the following issues do you believe should be the top priority for the President and Congress?
Economic issues like jobs
Fiscal issues like the deficit, spending and cutting taxes
Foreign policy issues like national security and the war in Afghanistan
Pocketbook issues like rising prices, the cost of gasoline and housing
Social issues like abortion and gay marriage”
The results broke down as follows:
56% Economic Issues
21% Fiscal issues
6% Foreign policy issues
6% Pocketbook issues
4% Social issues
Not that it wasn’t obvious, but this does help explain why in a “Foreign Policy” debate there was a lot of discussion of issues that touched on domestic policy, issues that voters felt more impacted their lives. “Trade” was mentioned 14 times; “terrorism” only four.
Like it or not, Americans today are just not that interested in foreign affairs. In 1964, Pew research showed only 20 percent of the public agreed and 69 percent disagreed with the statement, “The US should mind its own business and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” By December 2013, those who disagreed had risen to 52 percent and those who agreed had fallen to 38 percent—a 63-point shift.
If you’re looking for an issue that unites Republicans and Democrats, this is it. When asked, “Should the US concentrate more on our national problems rather than international,” the results vary almost none by party: 82 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of independents agree.
In a world of increasingly market-based politics—which is just a nicer way of saying that politicians poll a lot today and need to raise vast sums of money—these sorts of numbers offer almost zero incentive for anyone to focus on international affairs. The result is that no one is willing to take risks or lead, because there is no upside to leadership. In short, if it seems like Americans don’t care much about what’s happening in the world…it’s because we don’t. And most of our politicians seem perfectly happy not to care that we don’t care.
We’ve been here before and it never ends well. Before World War II, there was a wave of anti-immigration sentiment that included even those escaping from the growing European war. In four different polls in 1938 between 71 percent and 85 percent of the public opposed the U.S. accepting more war refuges. Tragically, in May of 1939, Jewish refugees on the ocean liner St. Louis who had escaped from Europe without U.S. visas, were not allowed to dock. After Cuba turned them away, they returned to Amsterdam, which was soon captured by the Nazis.
In the 1940 presidential election, Republican Wendell Willkie took a more anti-Nazi, interventionist position and was crushed by President Roosevelt. In the run-up to the election, after the start of the war in Europe, Roosevelt was so sensitive to anti-war sentiment that he even framed his efforts to help Great Britain as anti-war. In his appeal for the repeal of provisions of the Neutrality Act that prohibited arms sales to warring countries, he declared: “Our acts must be guided by one single, hardheaded thought—keeping America out of the war.”
Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of the War.” But even by his inaugural he was preparing the nation for war: “There can be no turning back,” he somberly said. “Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.” A few years later, over 320,000 Americans had been killed or wounded in our first European war.
Today President Obama declares that he has “ended two wars.” It’s a tellingly U.S.-centered perspective from a president who greatly touted his international life experiences when he ran in 2008. The wars haven’t ended but American troops are out of Iraq and far fewer are in Afghanistan. Our war is ended or is ending. Their war is a horror.
What is most remarkable is that while the world seems to be teetering on chaos, no U.S. politician seems eager to step forward and use foreign policy as a path to national leadership. The only exception may be Rand Paul, who seems tempted to withdraw U.S. troops from anywhere their cellphones incur roaming charges.
Believe me, I know how hard it is to get the public to support unpopular positions. But is this really how Americans see the United States role in the world? We sit at home and watch a dead American lying in a Ukrainian field while our president calls it an “outrageous event,” an odd phrase for mass murder. American and Allied blood liberate vast areas of Iraq from Saddam’s tyranny—we can argue the merits of invasion BUT Saddam was a beast of a dictator—that today are falling under the black flag of Isis. Does anyone really think that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon? Or that the Taliban is not likely to “win” in Afghanistan?
The Obama foreign policy was based on two principles: “A New Beginning” with the Muslim world as he articulated in his June 2009 Cairo speech, and Not Being George W. Bush. The first has gone up in flames, literally, as his VP would say. The second seems as consequential for the next election as JFK running on not being Truman.
The world—and our own conscience—will eventually demand that the U.S. step forward. It always does. Some horror will be too great, some attack too grievous for us to ignore. But we would all be better served if our politicians put aside the polls and started to do a better job of explaining why U.S. leadership was critical in the world.
Saying what the public wants to hear may be a good way to get votes, but it’s a dangerous way to lead a country and a disastrous way to lead the world. We need more from our leaders—even if sometimes it seems we don’t deserve it.