Like Mark Twain, reports of the death of internationalism could be premature. David Adesnik of the American Enterprise Institute writes that “a closer look at the data reveals a more complex picture, of an American public that is deeply dissatisfied but persistently searching for a president who can enhance American strength and exert effective global leadership.”
He goes through the latest Pew poll, finding that despite its billing as a sign Americans want to retreat from the world, in fact:
Fully 84 percent of respondents said the United States ought to exercise either shared or singular global leadership, a question that has consistently been asked, and notably, answered the same way for decades. Since 1993, more than 80 percent of Americans have wanted their country to be a global leader. This data is consistent with the findings of similar surveys conducted in 2010 and 2012 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which also found that upwards of 80 percent of Americans favored strong leadership abroad. Additionally, by a margin of 56 to 32 percent, the Pew survey found that Americans favor policies designed to ensure we remain the world’s only superpower. Even more interestingly, about half of respondents oppose further cuts to the defense budget; while almost a quarter want to increase it – up ten percentage points from just two years ago.
The problem, he concludes, is President Obama’s foreign policy (“disapproval of Obama’s foreign policy has shot up from 17 to 56 percent since 2009. During that same period, the number that say Obama is ‘not tough enough’ has increased from 38 to 51 percent”). And, as I reported this week, high percentages of voters from both parties disagree with Obama’s approach to Iran, the number one threat to the United States and our allies from the Middle East.
Who can blame the public for its reticence? This president was entirely ineffective throughout the Arab Spring, dropped the ball on the rise of jihadists in North Africa, fumbled his way through the Benghazi, Libya, fiasco (still no one has been apprehended) and flip-flopped badly on Syria, erasing his own “red line” (which he falsely said wasn’t his). Now along comes the Iran agreement, which average Americans instinctively sense is a sweet deal for our enemy. Even the most dogged internationalist might want to hide under the bed with this president as commander-in-chief.
Moreover, the president rarely addresses foreign policy in major speeches. He drops a stunning policy reversal on Iran (they get to enrich!) in an interview, with no explanation as to his about-face. When he does address the country, as on Syria, his indecisiveness and weakness rattles friends and emboldens adversaries. Foreign policy commitments and sacrifices of blood and treasure deserve explanation, yet the president (because he plainly doesn’t want to focus on it) does not engage the American people. He is about “ending wars,” he told us.
The problem, of course, is that for the next three years he is the only president we will have. Congress can’t run the foreign policy of the United States, but it can be heard and push the administration in the right direction.
Even without the filibuster, Congress can implore the administration to nominate vigorous and qualified nominees. Take for example, the nomination of Puneet Talwar to be an assistant secretary of State for political military affairs. His hearing performance in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee was Chuck Hagel-ish. Under grilling from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (at the 1:33 mark) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) (about 1:52) he hemmed and hawed, seemed unable to provide even basic information on Iran and generally appeared unprepared. Democrats and Republicans alike have a responsibility to reject nominees they find simply not up to the job. (If they had to do it again, would Menendez and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin vote to confirm Hagel?)
Second, oversight is critical as we saw when the House called up Secretary of State John Kerry this past week to testify on Iran. The administration should be pushed and prodded to explain itself and provide adequate information so Congress can do its job. They may not be able to prevent Kerry from doing dumb things, but lawmakers can hold him to account afterwards and deter him from wandering into trouble in the future.
Third, Congress does have the power of the purse, the power to legislate (e.g. sanctions legislation, resolutions) and the power of the bully pulpit to engage voters.
Isolationists have serious problems convincing the American people we can retreat without adverse consequences. They offer no alternative policy for thwarting foes. (Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was ridiculed on Fox News when he suggested China and Russia could be constructive in negotiating with Iran.) It is perhaps fortunate for the United States that the same voices who preach retrenchment are losing favor with the public for their equally unrealistic domestic policy and political agenda (e.g. the shutdown).
Given competent and forceful leadership, the American people, I am confident, will continue to support a forward-leaning foreign policy. They believe America is a force for good in the world and that there are bad actors out there, which only the United States can handle. Congress and outside foreign policy experts can provide some of the needed leadership and offer concrete policy advice that is sober and realistic. The real solution, however, will only come with a new commander in chief. In the meantime, we’ll have to muddle through.