Give the Lady What She Wants!

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.

19 comments… add one
  • Tim

    What Americans WANT is the way we felt about ourselves in the 1990s: We wanted to be lauded as the world’s farmer, banker, policeman, innovator and manufacturer.

    In the 1990s I think there was widespread optimism, in the US and outside of it (at least, in the classes of people who could get on a plane and visit the US or who you’d likely encounter as a tourist abroad) that a Pax Americana could be long-lasting and prosperous. We had foreign interventions, but they were quick, and sometimes even looked successful (Kosovo 1999, and the Gulf War at least sent the message that we could accomplish things militarily with few long-term costs).

    Today, it feels like nobody likes us, like foreign interventions cost too much and accomplish too little. People don’t want ‘bringing the troops home’ to feel like a retreat – which it does when Afghanistan has been moving laterally or degrading security wise for a decade, Iraq is moving towards ‘failed state’ status and Putin is acting like Mussolini without a cool hat.

  • Tim

    Oh, I should edit what I said above: We want to be lauded as those things, but we want to do that without it feeling like it ‘costs’ us anything.

  • I haven’t seen much optimism here since the early 1960s. Certainly not in the 1990s. Maybe I’ve been too busy. Note that the date of the movie Gung Ho (1986) just about marked the peak of Japanese ascendancy. After that they had their own financial crisis and maybe for a short time we felt all the things you suggest we did. But it was for a pretty short time.

    In the early 1960s Europe and Japan were still trying to get on their feet after WWII, China was still hiding in it shell, and Russia had unprecedented influence and was enormously over-estimated by our intelligence apparatus. Those days aren’t coming again.

  • Tim

    Part of my experiences come from living as an American abroad at that time; we had a cabbie in the middle east one time who when asking where we’re from and what we were doing spontaneously burst out into “America the beautiful.”

    I think in the 1990s, at least, we felt more assured of our own supremacy on the world stage: The Europeans were our friends and needed us; Japan was a friend and no longer looked like it was going to overtake the US, and China was not yet large enough on the world stage to seem like a threat.

    You’re right in giving credit where credit’s due, though: A big part of the 1990s was just how disorganized Russia was. Someone once described Putin as the equivalent of a spoiler: He can’t win, can’t get all he wants, but he can certainly prevent others from doing so. That’s true in Ukraine, Iran, and elsewhere.

  • ...

    Obama’s foreign policy approval problems, like his immediate predecessor’s, are partly due to his own failings and partly due to how easy it is to demagogue foreign policy issues for domestic political consumption. If it doesn’t look like things are going well, the President will take it on the chin.

  • ...

    One more problem that any President has is that the vast majority of people that comment on foreign policy, both professionally and on an amateur basis, assume that everything that happens is our fault. This magnifies a President’s ratings when things go well and especially when things go poorly.

    Example: I think the President’s handling of the Syrian mess was terrible. I believe that he failed with Russia in part because it seems that foreign policy for that area was farmed out to one of the junior members of the Administration.

    And I don’t think either of those things contributed significantly to Russia taking over Crimea. That happened because a pro-Russian (or at least Russia-leaning) government was toppled by explicitly anti-Russian forces who then imposed an explicitly anti-Russian government that went out of its way to provoke Russia. The result should have been predictable, and if Obama had done everything “right” on Syria and handling of Ukrainian-Russian relations the outcome would have been substantially the same.

    (PD, the study you cited showing how many IR experts missed the invasion: How many of the predictions were based on a point in time BEFORE the Ukrainian government was toppled on February 22nd or thereabouts? Not sure where the link is located and I’m in a hurry, or I’d look it up.)

    But because everyone talks about this as though everything happens because of things “we” have done, it looks as though President Obama must have failed when Russia seized Crimea. I don’t think Obama’s input mattered at all, and I don’t think it would have mattered if we had a different President in charge. Unless it was McCain. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation because we’d all be nuclear slag. But other than that….

  • jan

    “I think it’s more that Americans are conflicted about foreign policy or as it’s sometimes put have cognitive dissonance about it.”

    Foreign policy is just that, foreignand some place else, usually explained in vague partisan terms/ideology by the news media. However, the full breath of it’s ramifications are not personally felt by the common man — at least those not in a military family or on the forefront of experiencing our foreign policy first hand. In fact, these days, people don’t even know where many countries are geographically located on a map! So, how can they possibly be bothered with the details of a crisis, so far afield of directly involving their own peace of mind, physical or financial safety?

    Nonetheless, should the misery overseas eventually spread to this continent, it will be seen differently, instigating an immediate public cry denouncing their government, wondering why they didn’t see the negative backwash sooner, before it was felt by us!. Much like the landslide in WA, which had earlier cautionary reports and warnings about land instability, people showed little concern about these inherent hazards, until the dangers suddenly evolved into reality. The same indifference occurred in La Conchita, CA in 2005, when a similarly noted geological weakness turned into a massive slide killing 10 people, and burying the eastern edge of the town. By the way, people continue to live there!

    Preventing home-grown disasters, though, or the escalation of distant events from turning into larger, personally-felt conflicts, is a matter of engaging in long-term versus short term planning. It prompts a leader to take worst-case-scenarios seriously, putting up viable safeguards to buffer future events that may or may not happen (i.e. electric grid vulnerability). It’s acting, rather than simply reacting, which, unfortunately, appears to be the nature of not only this administration’s foreign policy formulary, but also it’s domestic one as well. IOW, the governance of today applies duct tape (taken from the GWB era), airy, intellectual promises to our problems, along with crossing our fingers, and then hopes for the best……

  • steve

    Meh. People dont want to pay more taxes, but they want more services. They dont want us at war, but they dont want us looking weak. They want every other country to do what we want, but they dont want to invade and conquer. Any leader who ever told us the truth, i.e., that there are limits to our power, does not get re-elected or dooms his party when it comes to the foreign policy debate. Ever notice that all of the “serious” people are essentially pro-interventionists? Nothing new.

    I am tempted to agree with those above who think we had a feel good period in the 90s. I certainly remember coming home from Desert Storm and being greeted by tons of cheering people. Civilians practically came up and hugged you for the next few years when they saw you. Couple that with the USSR folding.


  • PD Shaw


    The Snap Poll was open for a total of 75 hours — from 9 p.m., Feb. 24 to 11:59 p.m., Feb. 27.

    They were also asked about the most likely outcome in Ukraine in six months. Most (39%) predicted violent conflict, short of civil war, followed by 22.6% situation stable; 4.4% predicted partition, 1.9% civil war. (The rest said don’t know or gave “other” response)

  • Ken Hoop

    If Kagan had had his way, Bush would have had great approval ratings until his presidency ended, because Iraq would have been turned into a pro-Israel, pro-American puppet state after a non-existent insurgency.
    Americans might well be tricked by WMD lies and false flags long enough to expend blood and treasure until the collapse of its Empire. The Kagans, dual loyalists to the core of their being, will likely play a if not the dominant role in sparking the bulk of spending of other folk’s blood and treasure.

  • michael reynolds

    Yeah, I think the 90’s were a high point of American optimism that ended abruptly on September 11, 2001. After that we were on a rage high for a while until everything turned to crap under Mr. Bush: Iraq, Afghanistan and finally the economy.

    There was an uptick in optimism (well, for most people) upon the election of Mr. Obama, but when miracles failed to be performed and it sank in that we still had Iraq, Afghanistan and a messed up economy, the mood darkened.

    We’re out of Iraq, on our way out of Afghanistan and the economy is limping along, but there’s no event or individual to spur a renewed optimism. Tech bubble, housing bubble, a botched war, an initially successful then endless war, insane Republicans forever threatening to blow up the economy. . . Thank God TV is good.

    I look at the long-term story arc of the United States and see that the frontier society now has no frontier. The exceptional nation is less exceptional in a world where many more nations are free and some are more free than we.

    What’s the narrative going forward? The mythology of the plucky colonists who threw off an empire, conquered a continent, saved the world from Nazis and Communists and brought freedom to the huddled masses is bogged down in boring detail and disappointment and frustration. We dragged that story out long past its sell-by date and there’s no new story.

    Face it: we’re Europe now.

  • Face it: we’re Europe now.

    I think you’re being unduly optimistic. We are light years more like Mexico than we are like any European country.

  • Andy

    I think Steve gets it about right. I’d add that we’re also nostalgic about the 1990’s because we were riding the wave of an economic bubble while reaping the rewards of the Cold War drawdown and the illusion of a unipolar world.

    “Americans might well be tricked by WMD lies and false flags long enough to expend blood and treasure until the collapse of its Empire.”

    Ah, the narrative that will probably never die….

  • Andy

    PD Shaw,

    I forgot to comment about the poll in the other post. For a “Snap” poll the timing wasn’t very good. A lot happened over those three days. I followed events closely as a has-been former expert on Russian military affairs and I know my estimate of probabilities changed significantly between the 24th and 27th. I would guess that many of those experts changed their views over those three days in response to the new information and the fast pace of events.

  • ...

    PD, thanks for the link and the info.

  • jan

    I think you’re being unduly optimistic. We are light years more like Mexico than we are like any European country.

    That was an unexpected comment from you, Dave.

  • Cstanley

    Regarding “giving ”em what they want”, I think Steve is right in that everyone wants the free lunch. That said, I feel that progressive politicians promise a lot of free lunches in their domestic policy and conservatives in foreign policy.

    And when the bill comes due, people notice. They notice that the Iraqis didn’t welcome us as liberators, and you can’t in fact keep your health insurance if you like it. Maybe it’s not a bad thing that the promises are becoming more obviously hollow. Maybe the electorate is growing up.

  • As I mentioned in another post, the only real way we have of determining what people genuinely want is by what they’re willing to pay for. Sure, people want just about anything they can get for free. It’s only when they must pay prices that relative priorities can be established.

  • ...

    Jan, I thought Schuler’s comment was Damned near verbatim of other comments he has made, though perhaps I’m misremembering.

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