Robert Kagan notes that President Obama’s attempts at giving Americans the foreign policy that they want isn’t working out particularly well for him:
The majority of Americans have opposed any meaningful U.S. role in Syria, have wanted to lessen U.S. involvement in the Middle East generally, are eager to see the “tide of war” recede and would like to focus on “nation-building at home.” Until now, the president generally has catered to and encouraged this public mood, so one presumes that he has succeeded, if nothing else, in gaining the public’s approval.
Yet, surprisingly, he hasn’t. The president’s approval ratings on foreign policy are dismal. According to the most recent CBS News poll, only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing on foreign policy, while 49 percent disapprove. This was consistent with other polls over the past year. A November poll by the Pew Research Center showed 34 percent approval on foreign policy vs. 56 percent disapproval. The CBS poll showed a higher percentage of Americans approving of Obama’s economic policies (39 percent) and a higher percentage approving his handling of health care (41 percent). Foreign policy is the most unpopular thing Obama is doing right now. And lest one think that foreign policy is never a winner, Bill Clinton’s foreign policy ratings at roughly the same point in his second term were quite good — 57 percent approval; 34 percent disapproval — and Ronald Reagan’s rating was more than 50 percent at a similar point in his presidency. That leaves Obama in the company of George W. Bush — not the first-term Bush whose ratings were consistently high but the second-term Bush mired in the worst phase of the Iraq war.
His explanation for the “paradox” is that Americans are ungrateful louts. I think it’s more that Americans are conflicted about foreign policy or as it’s sometimes put have cognitive dissonance about it.
On the one hand the default position for most Americans is non-interventionism, differing from the default position of American elites and opinion-makers which pushes us towards intervention. On the other we want things to go well, both for us and, mildly and at a distance, for others.
What I think have been missing from the discussions of foreign policy that have been fomented by the Ukraine crisis are the ideas of path dependency and opportunity costs. “Path dependency” is the idea that one course of action precludes another. The path in Syria that would have produced the least carnage was supporting Assad at least tacitly. It was impossible to oppose Assad and minimize bloodshed. We had to choose.
We have been alienating, aggravating, opposing, and ignoring Russia for several decades. We should not be surprised when Russia turns and says “this far and no farther” and, given Russia’s history, we should be even less surprised that they say it by force of arms.
And courses of action have opportunity costs. Waging wars that were impossible to win in Afghanistan and then in Iraq made it much less likely that we’d want to wage any war for some time to come. You’ve got to pick your wars carefully. We do not have an infinite appetite for war.