The Hawk Gap

by Dish Staff

Last week, after observing that the prospective 2016 candidates are taking much more hawkish positions on foreign policy issues than public opinion would suggest, Beinart suggested that this might be one more deleterious effect of money on our political system:

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.

Daniel Drezner’s not so sure about that, pointing out that foreign policy talk is about as cheap as it gets:

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. … 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.

Larison agrees with Drezner. In another post touching on this opinion gap, he takes down the notion of a “paradox” in the public’s attitude toward Obama’s foreign policy:

According to this story, Obama has given Americans the foreign policy they say they want, but they now disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy, so we’re supposed to believe that there is a “strange duality” at work. Instead of coming to the much more straightforward conclusion that Obama is not giving Americans the foreign policy they want (and that his foreign policy is still too activist and meddlesome), elite interventionists of different stripes engage in a lot of groundless speculation that the public actually wants the same things that the interventionists themselves want. It’s not obvious that most Americans “want a president to lead” in this case. The obsession with such “leadership” is primarily one shared by elites, and their idea of “leadership” requires a degree of U.S. activism overseas that the public hasn’t supported for years. The public-elite gap on foreign policy has rarely been wider than it is now because most Americans have no real interest in the “leadership” role for the U.S. or the president that foreign policy elites demand.