Last week Peter Beinart threw down a pretty provocative argument about the hawkish foreign policy rhetoric coming from the crop of potential 2016 presidential candidates, particularly Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). According to Beinart, they’re in it for the money, and the money wants a more hawkish foreign policy:
It’s worth analyzing the current moment in historical perspective. For a century, Americans have responded to disillusioning wars by demanding a less interventionist foreign policy. It happened after World War 1, after Korea, after Vietnam, and it’s happening again in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq. The difference between this moment and past ones is the role of money in politics. As on so many issues, politicians’ need to raise vast sums from the super-rich makes them ultra-responsive to one, distinct sliver of the population and less responsive to everyone else. The way campaign finance warps the political debate over financial regulation is well known. What we’re witnessing this year is a case study in the way it warps the foreign-policy debate as well.
In 2008, Obama was elected president in part because he had deviated from a hawkish, largely bipartisan, elite foreign-policy perspective that facilitated the war in Iraq. Six years later, Obama is still deviating, and so are the American people. Yet the elite consensus is stronger than ever, and in the run-up to 2016, that consensus — more than public opinion — is driving the presidential debate. No wonder Americans are cynical.
Okay, let’s do a little brush-clearing here. First of all, while in office President Obama has authorized the use of force against Libya, threatened to do so against Syria, and has supported myriad forms of military statecraft against violent non-state actors in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Uganda. He’s strongly supported allies in the Pacific Rim against Chinese encroachment and sanctioned Russia for attacking a country that isn’t a NATO member. If Obama is trying to act like a dove, then he’s doing a really lousy impression.
Still, let’s allow that Obama is less hawkish than many others in the foreign policy community right now. This leads to the second problem: the gap between public and elite attitudes about foreign policy has been a constant since the 1970s. At a minimum, the public has been far more realpolitik than the elites in the United States. The unusual thing in recent years has been that the public was so outraged by Iraq and so focused on the economy that it wouldn’t even support interventions that had some bipartisan support, such as Syria a year ago — and that foreign policy was a salient enough issue that politicians actually catered to public sentiment.
Beinart’s thesis is that this gap has grown even more in recent years, but I’m not sure that’s what going on. The most important fact about American foreign policy and public opinion is that Americans just don’t care all that much about the rest of the world. Sure, they’ll express less interventionist preferences when asked, but most of the time they don’t think about it. It’s precisely this lack of interest that gives presidents and foreign policymakers such leeway in crafting foreign policy.
It’s also worth remembering that when they do bother to think about it, people are growing dissatisfied with Obama’s foreign policy outcomes, even if they are copacetic with Obama’s foreign policy outputs. Hell, as New York Times reporter Peter Baker noted over the weekend, even Obama’s former foreign policy advisers are growing disenchanted. And since the bias in politics favors action over inaction, it’s not shocking that challengers such as Clinton or even Paul are making noises about doing something differently.
This brings me to the final reason that I’m a bit more sanguine than Beinart about recent foreign policy rhetoric: it doesn’t matter all that much. Statements about how one would do things better on the foreign policy front are among the best examples of cheap talk you’ll find in Washington. Why? Because the world will look different in January 2017 than it does today. So of course these proto-candidates can say they’d do things differently. No one will hold them to these claims if they’re elected, because the problems will have evolved.
Beinart is not completely wrong — money matters during the “invisible primary” stage, and it’s possible that money is driving, say, some of Rand Paul’s evolution. But I don’t think money is the key driver here. Never underestimate the persistence of the status quo in explaining a phenomenon like this one.
Am I missing anything?