Presidential and congressional leaders can make a difference in foreign policy, where — more than on domestic affairs — the public looks to elected leaders for guidance. When there is a leadership vacuum, the country and the Free World suffer.
Consider the NSA. After months of squeamishness, the president finally delivered a speech supporting the program and attesting to the absence of abuse. This was echoed by intelligence chairmen of both parties. Some of that seems to have sunk in: “According to a Fox News poll, 50 percent of registered voters think the program is more likely to catch terrorists and protect Americans from attacks, while 44 percent said the program is more likely to hurt Americans by using the information improperly. That is a broad turnaround since last year, according to the poll, when NSA contractor Edward Snowden first leaked the information. Last July only 41 percent of people said the program was more likely to help, while 47 percent said it would more likely hurt Americans.” Considering how much inaccurate reporting and hysteria from anti-surveillance lawmakers, that is remarkable.
It is a different story on human rights. The administration has made it perfectly clear that it is not interested in supporting rebels (e.g. Syria, Iran) or endangering its outreach to brutal regimes (e.g. Russia) by speaking up forcefully in favor of human rights. Obama plays into the public’s natural inclination to focus on issues such as the economy and the fear (stoked by Obama’s straw men) that support for democracy means war. As a result, Freedom House’s David Kramer and Arch Puddington find that in the past year, there have been “54 countries registering declines in political rights and civil liberties compared with only 40 countries registering gains. A disturbing 35% of the world’s population lives in societies without fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech or minority rights.” They attribute this to the Arab Spring backlash; “a decade long decline of democracy in Eurasia accelerated in 2013, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin”; and more effective authoritarian regimes. Unfortunately, there has been nothing to counteract these trends. (“The Obama administration has signaled, in words and policies, that the encouragement of democracy is no longer a priority. Witness the administration’s current outreach to the murderous Assad regime.”)
Where the Obama administration has however grudgingly defended U.S. interests, the public has followed; wherever it has played to isolationism or given in to its own distaste for the messy business of democratic revolution, freedom and stability have suffered. The public increasingly disapproves of Obama’s foreign policy. The lesson here is that it is folly in foreign policy to play to the crowd; instead, the public tends to follow leaders who make the case for defense of American interests. Republicans should take note.