The American People and American Interventions

The increased violence in Iraq in recent weeks has led many US foreign policy makers to call for a renewed American presence there. The sheer chutzpah of the architects of the second Iraq War, who took the US into a war of choice based on what charitably could be called trumped up evidence, and that led to an enormous cost in American life and treasure is impossible to miss. Nonetheless, it is now true that conditions in Iraq are rapidly turning from bad to worse and there is a real likelihood of further US action there.

The wisdom and necessity of action can, and should, be debated. Those debates, like most foreign policy debates are discussions of strategy, scenarios and interests, but rarely seriously consider the needs and hopes of the American people. Whenever an expert or current or former office holder, regardless of party, discusses this type of question of intervention, whether in Iraq, Ukraine or elsewhere, at some point they warily note something to the effect of "the American people have no appetite for further intervention anywhere." The tone of this remark usually seems to suggest that this is a flaw of the American people, rather than the preference of a free people in a democratic country.

It is easy to make an argument for almost any specific intervention. The potential for widespread human rights violations, the impact of regional instability and possible civil wars are real problems that should, if possible, be prevented. Persuading the American people that only US action can stop this in any particular case is not very difficult. It is also no longer enough. This is because the big picture argument for American intervention, that serves as the foundation, for each specific case, has collapsed.

US foreign policy has long been based on an unspoken social contract between the US government and its people that in exchange for spending money, and occasionally having our soldiers killed, the US would have a strong economy and a growing middle class. That social contract has slowly been eroding over the last three decades or so, but has completely collapsed due to the longterm effects of the economic crisis, growing disparities of wealth, lack of economic mobility and other characteristics of the American economy in the second decade of the 21st century.

The evolution of post-War, and particularly post-Cold War, American foreign policy is predicated on a notion that the US has a special role and responsibility in the world. This is the fundamental and bipartisan foundation of whatever foreign policy consensus exists among policy makers. Clearly this view is not always shared by people outside the US, but domestically it rests on American prosperity and confidence. When those things are strong, the American people are more comfortable supporting an ambitious foreign policy. However, when these things are persistently weak, as has been the case for several years now, the American people will begin to balk at such an expansive vision of the US role in the world. This is partially because many Americans feel US resources would be better spent at home, but also because, given all the economic problems and worries domestically, they increasingly do not find the idea of a special role for the US in the world plausible.

Choosing to pursue a foreign policy that entails trying to solve almost every problem in every country in the world, to overstate but only slightly, the nature of US foreign policy, is a bold decision for a prosperous superpower. However, for a country that confronts ongoing and seemingly intractable economic problems, to pursue such a foreign policy makes less sense. Moreover, in tough economic times, such a policy will never enjoy the support of the people.

There are many reasons why the US should have an activist and interventionist foreign policy. In today's globalized world isolationism is a fantasy not a real policy option. The US can be a force for tremendous good and benefits from a stable and safer world. The US is also able to do things that no other state can do. There are also counter-arguments for each of these points. However, the debate is valuable and something in which the American people should have a voice, rather than being dismissed as wary or too inwardly focussed.

The question of whether the US should, or can, sustain a foreign policy that is increasingly out of synch with the views of the people is one that should be taken seriously in a democratic country. If the American people have no appetite for further intervention, then that should be a major consideration for any president or policy maker. If those leaders believe the policy is essential for US interests or security it is their responsibility to build public support for that policy. A failure to build that support is a failure of leadership and ultimately of democracy as well.