As with most things this president does, the predominant sentiment among the chattering classes was skepticism. But there was a remarkable difference from the last time Obama had made a plea to get involved in the Middle East. On September 10th, 2013, a deep reluctance pervaded Capitol Hill—as well as the voting public—following Obama’s speech arguing that America must react with force to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. His inability to corral support soon led to an abandonment of the more bellicose elements of his plan. But by September 10th, 2014, congressional leaders had made a 180; many were fearful that Obama’s plan to fight the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria did not go far enough in eradicating the emergent terrorist group.
With fatigue over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a heightened urgency surrounding domestic issues (i.e., the economy), American public opinion has made a well-documented turn toward isolationism in the past decade. So what explains the sudden turn toward gung-ho intervention this summer?
Perhaps a 13-year-old book called Special Providence. In this influential international-relations text, political scientist Walter Russell Mead seeks to answer the age-old question of how to characterize and classify the American foreign-policy tradition. He argues that American opinion on foreign policy is a mixture of four schools of thought, each embodied by a different great American: Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, or Andrew Jackson.
- Hamiltonians believe in a strong federal government with an active foreign policy. Their primary concern is America’s economic empire; they are realists who seek to build a world order that maximizes commercial opportunities and strengthens American business both here and overseas.
- Wilsonians think that America has a moral responsibility to the rest of the world. The original Wilsonians were Christian missionaries, but today they believe that peace, democracy, and human rights are values all nations must share for a better world—and thus American foreign policy should actively promote these values.
- Jeffersonians, in contrast, disdain foreign engagements in favor of preserving democracy at home. To achieve their main goal of protecting Americans’ freedoms, they support only deescalating, diplomatic solutions that deflect war. As strict constitutional constructionists, they also put their faith in Congress, not an overstepping executive branch taking unilateral action.
- Jacksonians want to be left alone, and they believe the best way to do so is to be well armed. They dislike international entanglements, but they care deeply about defending the homeland. Even though they are suspicious of big government, they love a strong military, and, if America is threatened, they do not hesitate to unleash its full force to indiscriminately destroy our enemies.
Although one school has frequently been enough to shape an administration’s entire foreign policy, one school is rarely enough to garner the majority support of the public. Such was the case with Syria in 2013. The case for intervention a year ago was a Wilsonian one: acting as the “policeman of the world,” the U.S. felt it had a responsibility to enforce the international norm against chemical-weapons use and to provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian populace. There was no economic incentive to entice Hamiltonians; there was no clear and present danger to convince Jacksonians.
With one quarter of schools to justify it, support for intervention was mired around one quarter of respondents in polls. In a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted September 19–23, 2013, just 26% said “the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria.” An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted the same month put support for airstrikes at just 30%; Gallup measured support for “military action” at 28%.
But the same polls a year later tell a different story. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted August 13–17, 2014, a full 54% of Americans favored airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, compared to 39% who were opposed. The same month, the Pew Research Center and USA Today found 54% who approved of airstrikes and 31% who disapproved. Pew went on to find a sharp increase in the number of Americans who believe the U.S. does too little to solve world problems. In November 2013, 17% said so and 51% said the U.S. does too much; in August 2014, 31% said too little and 39% said too much.
Last year’s dilemma and this one have important differences that explain Americans’ sudden hawkishness. In 2013, we would have fought Assad; in 2014, we are bombing the Islamic State. In 2013, we would have been inserting ourselves into Syria; in 2014, the question is over a country we got at Pottery Barn. And 2013’s intervention would have been humanitarian, while 2014’s is more about national security.
These differences have won over adherents of multiple schools, explaining the popularity of airstrikes today. Wilsonians still support intervention, since the Islamic State threatens the well-being of non-Sunnis, including the now-famous Yazidis whose confinement on Sinjar Mountain was the original impetus for the strikes. Hamiltonians now have a reason to get involved, since the Islamic State controls copious oil wells. But, with 67% of Americans saying the Islamic State is a “major threat,” the beast that has truly been awakened is the public’s Jacksonian strain. With their one criterion (danger to the homeland) fulfilled, Jacksonians are now more than ready—they are itching—to bring full American military might down on the Islamic State.
Better than any other school, the Jacksonian influence can actually be pinpointed in the polls. Jacksonians tend to be anti-elite populists with a strong sense of honor, self-reliance, and military pride. According to Mead, “Jacksonians are today’s Fox News watchers,” and in their constant hatred of big government they often see conspiracy theories about elites trying to build a world government. In other words, they are Tea Party Republicans!
According to each poll’s crosstabs, Tea Partiers account for most of the shift in public opinion. In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, 63% of “conservative Republicans” supported airstrikes (+9 points from the overall sample). In the Pew poll, the GOP is supportive by a whopping 71% to 14% (+17 points on the overall sample). Tea Party Republicans specifically are nearly unanimous (91%; +24 points) in saying that the Islamic State is a major threat. And on the question over U.S. involvement in the world, the Tea Party completely reversed itself: in November 2013, they said the U.S. does too much global problem-solving 54% to 22%; in August 2014, they said the U.S. does too little 54% to 33%. Democrats and independents also shifted toward interventionism, but by just 10 points each, meaning they still comfortably say the U.S. does too much, even today.
Paradoxically, then, Obama’s newest foreign-policy agenda could be saved by his biggest adversaries. He may very well have drawn it up this way; the president’s words in last Wednesday’s speech were no accident. Before referring to upholding our values and “timeless ideals,” he appealed to “our own safety,” “our own security,” “our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation.” Perhaps learning from his 2013 failures, he has successfully built a coalition of Wilsonians and Jacksonians who are giving him the political capital he needs to see a mission through in the Middle East. Perhaps the difference in the interim was he read a little Walter Russell Mead.