Think back to the third and final debate of the 2012 presidential campaign. It is Oct. 22, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, and Barack Obama has just trounced Mitt Romney on several questions of foreign policy. It’s not that Obama’s ideas are so much better than Romney’s, but that Romney can’t find anything to disagree with. On issue after issue, the Republican challenger wants more of the same, thereby reaffirming the president’s probity.
The post-debate commentary solidified Obama’s victory: He had overcome the stereotypical foreign policy weakness of Democrats by being tough enough in his first term. He helped to bring down Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and scored a big win when a group of Navy SEALs dispatched Osama bin Laden. He had proved a stalwart partner of Israel’s. The Arab Spring seemed, then, to promise a new day, and Obama was ready to take advantage. Drones were killing enemies of the United States, and still are. Guantánamo Bay was still holding dangerous men, a frustration to anyone who cares about due process, but security hawks were neutralized.
How different today is. Now Paul Ryan says Obama’s foreign policy is “weak and indecisive.” In The Wall Street Journal, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Elizabeth tore into the president, writing, “American freedom will not be secured by empty threats, meaningless red lines, leading from behind, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies or apologizing for our great nation.” U.S. News and World Report says Obama is “disarming America.” In a critique masquerading as reporting, The New York Times’ David Sanger wrote of a “pendulum [that] has swung too far in the direction of nonintervention.” America, according to conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin, “appears off-kilter, unreliable and weak.”
It’s no mystery how we got here in less than two years. Obama is talking to Iran, not threatening military action. He is staying out of Syria and refuses to take the bait in Ukraine. He is continuing to wind down the American military commitment in Afghanistan, even though it would be impossible to claim with a straight face that the Afghan state is prepared to provide for its own security or to suppress fundamentalism. And while the U.S. military may yet intervene in Iraq’s mounting sectarian conflict, Obama has already refused an Iraqi request for air strikes against militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who have taken over Mosul and Tikrit and are threatening Baghdad.
That conservatives see in these choices weakness, indecision and excessive caution is not surprising. What is surprising is that, at last, in one important respect, America has the president it voted for in 2008, the candidate who struck a markedly conciliatory tone by comparison with his six-gun-and-stirrups predecessor George W. Bush. The Obama that Democrats voted for even as Hillary Clinton tried to scare them with evocations of 3 a.m. phone calls, that the country as a whole elected over John McCain, the most reputable interventionist that Republicans could muster.
It seemed as though Obama the candidate would never reappear, but now he’s here. And while neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan decry a supposed “decline,” Americans are with Obama, as they were when he first offered his less musclebound vision of foreign policy.
Americans have never wanted to intervene in Syria, including in an attempt to back up the faint red line on chemical weapons. Last September, Gallup found, “Thirty-six percent of Americans favor the U.S. taking military action in order to reduce Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons. The majority — 51% — oppose such action.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., complains that “there are no consequences when you defy what Obama’s telling you to do,” but Americans appear to be less worried about credibility than their pundits and public officials are.
Similarly, a Pew Poll finds, “By a roughly two-to-one margin (56% vs. 29%), the public says it is more important for the U.S. to not get involved in the situation with Russia and Ukraine than to take a firm stand against Russian actions.” The attempted détente with Iran is beginning to diffuse American concerns about that country. Even with sectarian war underway in Iraq, a mere 16 percent of Americans want to see troops sent there; most would prefer a U.S. mission limited to intelligence sharing and diplomacy. And an overwhelming majority wants to be done with Afghanistan. While Obama’s overall foreign policy approval is not high, when it comes to military intervention in ongoing conflicts, the public is with the president. On the whole, a majority of Americans believe that the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”
Notably, the latter is not Obama’s position. The United States is not minding its own business, militarily or economically. We are pursuing trade agreements and alliances in Europe and Asia, not to mention worldwide surveillance by the NSA and the unaccountable drone war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The world is still dotted with about 500 to 1,000 American military installations, depending on who’s counting.
Yet the low appetite for foreign intervention in both the White House and among the population is undeniable. And this correspondence deserves respect. As Harvard humanities professor Elaine Scarry argues forcefully in her new book “Thermonuclear Monarchy,” the Constitution expressly assigns war-making authority to the body of the people. Article I, Section 8, places the power to declare war in the hands of Congress, the representative arm of the federal government. And the Second Amendment preserves a right to bear arms for the purpose of the collective defense, devolving to the people the opportunity to ratify Congress’s declaration through their own action. (Whether the Second Amendment also protects the right to bear arms for self-defense is an unrelated issue.)
Admittedly, Scarry’s is a provocative reading of our rights, one that arguably supplies justification for selective conscientious objection, which may stir misgivings even in a committed noninterventionist. And, as a practical matter, it’s not clear that a congressional majority agrees with Obama’s foreign policy positions. But the thrust of her argument — that the people should be consulted directly on matters of war and peace, and that our basic laws urge this more stridently than they do direct consultation on, say, school legislation — is powerful.
Popular opinion is not necessarily wise; nor, necessarily, is Obama’s foreign policy stance. But hawks might consider taking more care in condemning supposed weakness. Obama has public support for his policies. And the people don’t seem to be weak, unreliable or indecisive. When it comes to further military engagements, Americans know exactly what they don’t want.