Team America no longer wants to be the World’s Police

September 13, 2013

We've written repeatedly in this space over the past two weeks about how much Americans (and Congress) don't want to get involved in what's going on in Syria. This much is clear.

But Americans' hesitation isn't really about Syria; it's more about their increasingly non-interventionist attitude toward foreign policy.

(Craig Ruttle/Associated Press)
(Craig Ruttle/Associated Press)

Case in point: opposition to military action in Syria tracks very closely to overall opposition to foreign intervention.

Take two new polls.

A newly released CBS News/New York Times poll asked people whether they felt the United States should "take the leading role ... in trying to solve international conflicts."

A CNN/Opinion Research poll, meanwhile, asked: "As a general rule, do you think the United States should be ready and willing to use military force around the world, or the United States should be very reluctant to use military force?"

In each case, just 34 percent of Americans said they wanted a more involved foreign policy, while more than six in 10 Americans wanted to be more non-interventionist.

The CBS/NYT poll also asked whether the United States should seek to remove dictators where it can. Americans opposed this resoundingly, 72-15.

Now, it's logical that Americans would be more opposed to military action than they were a decade ago, given the experiences of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that is indeed the case.

What's more interesting is that, in each of these polls, opposition to military action is also higher than it has been in more recent years -- even at the height of the unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghanistan efforts.

As recently as 2011, the CNN poll showed 46 percent of Americans saying the United States should be "ready and willing" to use military force; now it's 34 percent.

And the 72 percent who opposed overthrowing dictators in the CBS/NYT poll was slightly higher than it was in 2011, 2008 and 2007, and much higher than it was in 2003.

In other words, even as the United States withdraws from overseas conflicts, Americans appear to be getting more non-interventionist, not less.

President Obama, who is undoubtedly aware of these numbers, sought to address this issue during Tuesday's speech. Obama assured that the United States wouldn't be acting as the "world's policeman" in Syria.

"Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong," he said. "But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional."

The problem for Obama is that Americans pretty clearly view the proposed military action in Syria as "police"-work.

And this, more than the details of chemical weapons attacks and international diplomacy efforts, is what prevents the American public from getting behind military intervention in Syria.

Under other circumstances the case for intervention in Syria, with more than a thousand killed in one of the few documented chemical weapons attack in recent history, would likely be quite compelling.

But the American public, as it's presently constituted, is quite simply a very difficult sell.

Fixbits:

Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. military remains poised to attack if a diplomatic deal on Syria isn't reached.

Former comptroller Bill Thompson isn't bowing out of the Democratic race for New York City mayor until all the votes are counted.

Congressional Democrats rejected Republican efforts to delay or cut funding of Obamacare.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Congress may cancel its upcoming recess.

U.S. lawmakers railed against Russian President Vladimir Putin's New York Times op-ed.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) feels "sorry" for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Republican Milton Wolf, the second cousin once removed of Obama, may run against Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has hired a "fixer."

Must-reads:

"Investigators probe Jeffrey E. Thompson’s possible role in Clinton’s 2008 campaign" -- Philip Rucker, Matea Gold and Ann E. Marimow, Washington Post

"Minyon Moore thrust into unfamiliar spotlight" -- Nikita Stewart, Washington Post

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