Domenech then referenced “honest brokers” who acknowledged this fact, linking to a National Review column by Matthew Continetti. In that weekend essay, Continetti asserted, “There is nothing so consistent as American ambivalence toward our superpower status. Most great powers covet hegemony. We hate it. The costs are too high, the demands too stressful.” He concluded, with respect to Syria, “if what’s happening is a betrayal of American values, it’s one Americans voted for.”
As President Trump has made Syria worse, I have heard kindred arguments from both ends of the political spectrum. Sure, the narrative runs, Trump is withdrawing from Syria in the messiest way possible, but isn’t this what the American people wanted? Don’t they want the forever wars in the Middle East to end? Surely they don’t want a return of the hawks, right?
What is striking about arguments like these is the near-complete absence of any discussion of public opinion polling to buttress their argument. If the Blob’s policy preferences are truly disconnected from those of the American public, that would be a powerful populist talking point. This has been made in the past with a heavy reliance on polling data. Both Trumpists and progressives should be trumpeting public opinion surveys from the rooftops that highlight the disconnect with the Blob.
They are not doing that, however, and I think I know why. It turns out that what the American people want in foreign policy looks an awful lot like what the Blob wants.
Let’s take Syria as an example. This should be an easy test for populists, since by the middle of 2018 Islamic State forces in the country had been captured, killed or expelled. The United States is in Syria on dubious legal grounds. Surely, when Trump proposed withdrawing U.S. forces in January, Americans supported it?
As it turns out, not so much. According to a January 2019 Pew survey, “43% of Americans say withdrawing American troops from Syria would be the right decision, while 45% say it would be the wrong decision.” This does not sound like a public that has a clear opinion on the topic.
Of course, that was back in January. As Trump has been hammering home this theme, the American people have shifted toward his position, yes?
Well, they have shifted. According to three polls this week, however, they’re moving away from Trump’s position. A Quinnipiac poll found that 60 percent of voters disapproved of Trump’s withdrawal of support for the Kurds, compared with 30 percent support. A YouGov poll on the question found that 52 percent of respondents disapproved of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, while only 28 percent approved. The University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami has also been polling this month, and his results are similar: “On October 7, support for his move was low, with only 27% of respondents saying they supported it. ... Within two days ... support for the decision declined further to 21%, and opposition increased from 42% to 46%.” A FiveThirtyEight review by Dhrumil Mehta of recent polling suggests similar results: a public that is more opposed to Trump’s Syria policy than it was in January.
I do not want to exaggerate these findings. Telhami also finds majority support for a reduction of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Clearly, the American people are not solidly in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Syria. A plurality of respondents clearly are, however, and public sentiment has shifted away from Trump in this area.
This jibes with recent Chicago Council polling on overall public attitudes toward America’s role in the world. (Full disclosure: I’m on the foreign policy advisory board that consulted with and provided feedback for this survey.)
Whether they identify as Democrats, Independents, or Republicans, large numbers of Americans continue to favor the foundational elements of traditional, post–World War II US foreign policy. They express continued or increased support for security alliances and military deterrence by maintaining superior military capabilities and US bases abroad. They believe international trade is good for the United States and American companies, and that promoting democracy and human rights around the world makes the United States safer. In fact, support for NATO, military alliances, and trade have never been higher in the history of the Chicago Council Survey.Placed within the context of the 45-year history of the Chicago Council Survey, the most striking conclusion is how consistently Americans support a foreign policy based on shared leadership, strong alliances, free trade, and the selective use of military force to defend the United States and its allies.
Americans will never be as hawkish as Continetti or neoconservatives want them to be, and thank God for that. The idea, however, that there is some yawning gap between the American public and the American foreign policy community is simply not borne out by the data. Whatever gap used to exist has narrowed considerably. It is disingenuous of Domenech and others to suggest otherwise. Indeed, if there is a gap between the public and elected officials, it is that the public is way less protectionist than most folks running for president.
None of this is to say that the Blob or the American people are right about any particular foreign policy issue. I am all for serious debates about the future of American foreign policy. But advocates of restraint need to stop claiming that the Blob is acting in an undemocratic manner. Because it just ain’t so.