Political analysts over the next year or so, and historians well into the future, are likely to point to the fall of 2013 as a fundamental inflection point in American politics. That period, they will say, is when the American people forced a major new direction in American foreign policy. Before the events of this fall, the country’s electorate largely delegated foreign policy to its political elite—and largely supported that elite as it projected American military power with more abandon than the country had ever before seen. Even as the government steadfastly expanded the range of international problems that it said required U.S. military action, the electorate accepted that expanded international role and that increasingly promiscuous use of force.
Those days are gone now. The American people conveyed emphatically, in public opinion surveys and in communications to their representatives in Washington, that they did not want their country to launch air strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Not even if Assad used chemical weapons against his people, as they generally believe he did. Not even if the strikes are limited in magnitude and duration, as Obama promises they will be. Not even if the president of the United States says the strikes are in the country’s national interest. They don’t buy it, and they don’t want it.
Poll numbers in recent days have demonstrated this turnaround in stark fashion. In addition, congressional reluctance to support the president’s authorization request was growing inexorably. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the president was "losing ground in both parties in recent days," while the Wall Street Journal said support for Mr. Obama’s position on Syria "was slipping in Congress." If Russia’s Vladimir Putin hadn’t interrupted the U.S. political process with his call for a negotiated end to Assad’s possession of chemical weapons, it seems inevitable that the president would have suffered a devastating political defeat in Congress. That’s still the likely outcome if it ever comes to a vote.
And there’s no doubt that his difficulties in Congress are driven in part by recent poll numbers, which are startling. Gallup reported recently, based on polling between September 3-4, that American support for the Syria attack was the lowest at this stage in a prospective military action seen over the past twenty years—36 percent, compared to 59 percent for the 2003 Iraq invasion, 82 percent for the initial Afghanistan action in 2001, 62 percent for the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and 43 percent for the Kosovo bombing of 1999.
But the 36 percent support number in the Gallup poll quickly was overtaken by lower numbers in subsequent polls. A later CNN poll showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents believed it wasn’t in the U.S. interest to get involved in Syria’s civil war, and a slightly higher percentage said airstrikes wouldn’t achieve any significant goals for the United States. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from September 5-9 pegged support for U.S. involvement in Syria at just 16 percent, down from 20 percent just a week earlier.
In a survey reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the paper asked broader questions about American foreign policy, and the results were revealing. Fully 62 percent of respondents said the United States shouldn’t take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. On a question whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no. Only 15 percent said yes. The Times said that represents the highest level of opposition recorded by the paper in various polls over the past decade.
To understand the significance of these numbers, along with the political pressures building on lawmakers on the issue, it’s important to note that American political sentiment doesn’t change willy-nilly, for no reason. What we’re seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country’s national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy. And, given the country’s foreign-policy history of the past two decades, it isn’t surprising that the people would begin to nudge their leaders with a certain amount of agitation.
They were told in late 1992 that the U.S. incursion into Somalia was for the benign purpose of merely feeding starving people. A year later that adventure ended in a disaster for America and a major embarrassment for President Bill Clinton, who had expanded the Somalia mission. The American people were told they had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction and serious ties to Al Qaeda. Neither was true. They were told that the Iraqi people would embrace some form of Western-style democracy once Saddam Hussein was out of the way. Didn’t happen. They were told that Hosni Mubarak’s departure in Egypt would lead to the emergence of democratic institutions there. They got, first, an Islamist government through election, then another military coup of the kind that has characterized that country and region for decades. They were told the Libyan people would be better off without Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the result was societal chaos, with Qaddafi’s weapons streaming into the hands of Islamist radicals (and being used against U.S. diplomatic personnel). They were told to embrace "globalization," and it led to the worst economic dislocation since the Great Depression.
In other words, the country’s elites—of both political parties and across the political spectrum—have been wrong on just about everything they have done since the end of the Cold War. And the voters, as a collective, aren’t stupid. They know that these fiascos have been the products of particular philosophical concepts that have emerged since the beginning of America’s "unipolar moment" around 1990.
They may not understand these philosophical concepts in all their complexities and nuances, but they know the Republican neoconservatives and the Democratic humanitarians have been driving the agenda.
Thus, you can look now for the American people to take back the agenda. When this sort of voter clawback occurs in American politics, as it has from time to time, you see it first in the polls, then in defensive congressional actions, and then in voter punishment directed at those who can’t seem to get the message. It’s going to be an interesting time in the politics of American foreign policy over the next few years.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.