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American Skepticism About Interventionism Is A Return To Historical Norms

military-soldier-sunset

A new CBS News poll finds that the vast majority of Americans don’t believe the United States should involve itself in the ongoing crisis between Ukraine and Russia:

Most Americans don’t think the U.S. is obliged to intervene in the recent annexation by Russia of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. A majority of 61 percent of Americans do not think the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the situation between Russia and Ukraine, nearly twice as many as the 32 percent who think it does. There is widespread bipartisan agreement on this.

Public opinion about U.S. responsibility in Ukraine is similar to views about U.S. responsibility in other international conflicts. Majorities of Americans did not think the U.S. had a responsibility to intervene in Syria (68 percent), in the fighting and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia (65 percent) or in the mass killings in Rwanda (51 percent). In contrast, 54 percent of Americans believed the U.S. did have a responsibility to intervene in Kosovo, a situation where the U.S. began a bombing campaign against Serbian forces in cooperation with NATO.

More specifically, 65 percent of Americans do not think the U.S. should provide military aid and equipment to Ukraine in response to Russia’s actions, while only 26 percent think the U.S. should. Majorities of Republicans (59 percent), Democrats (67 percent), and independents (69 percent) are opposed to providing military aid and equipment to Ukraine.

This isn’t entirely a surprise, of course. The American public seems to continue to be in a mood after Iraq and Afghanistan that is, at the very least, skeptical of intervention in foreign conflicts to a far greate r degree than it was beforehand. To some extent, this is arguably a return to a norm that existed prior to the September 11th attacks and the War On Terror. As noted above, the Americans were just as skeptical of President Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo as they have been of President Obama’s intervention in Libya or of the threats that he made last year about intervening in the Syrian civil war over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Indeed, outside of the Cold War one could make the case that Americans have traditionally been skeptical of military action of any kind and that the periods when public opinion has been otherwise such as in the run-up to events such as the Spanish-American War or World War One. Additionally, of course, there are those times in history where the nation has been attacked, such as World War Two, that stand as an obvious exception to the general rule. Finally, as noted, for at least part of the Cold War the American public generally supported an activist foreign policy in response to the perceived threat of expansionist Communism. Even that support began to evaporate, though, in the face of a stalemate in Korea and, more importantly, what can only fairly be described as a defeat in Vietnam. Looking at the broad sweep of history, then, what you see is an American public that is generally skeptical of intervention abroad except in circumstances where real threats to national security exist.

Politically, of course, this suggests that there might be an opening for candidates advocating a less interventionist foreign policy, such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul on the Republican side. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that such candidates haven’t always been successful at the Presidential level. The Democrats tried taking that tack in the years after the Vietnam War and were spectacularly unsuccessful at the Presidential level in every election from 1972 to 1988 with the singular exception of Jimmy Cater’s narrow victory over Gerald Ford in 1976. Alternatively, of course, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama arguably did win election based at least in part on a message that they would be less focused on foreign adventurism than their predecessors. In reality, of course, all three of them ended up being adventurous overseas in their own ways, but the general fact that candidates who advocate restraint abroad can be electorally successful is something worth noting. Could this be an opening for a candidate like Paul in 2016? That’s unclear, but it’s something that I’m much less willing to dismiss than I was in the past.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. John D'Geek says:

    @Doug

    Additionally, of course, there are those times in history where the nation has been attacked, such as World War Two, that stand as an obvious exception to the general rule.

    I’m not sure* I concur with this. The US was distinctly anti-interventionist all the way up to Pearl Harbor. There’s a distinct difference between intervening and being drug into a war, like it or not.

    * – “Not sure”, in this case, means “I may be misinterpreting you”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. C. Clavin says:

    …Politically, of course, this suggests that there might be an opening for candidates advocating a less interventionist foreign policy, such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul on the Republican side…

    Of course it’s also one of the main reasons he won’t get past the primaries. Americans may be non-interventionist…but the Republican base is not.

    …The Democrats tried taking that tack in the years after the Vietnam War and were spectacularly unsuccessful at the Presidential level…

    So in a way Rand completes the transformation of Republicans from a valid political party into the Democrats of the 70′s…completely worthless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  3. ernieyeball says:

    The 39th President of the United States

    He expressed fears that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year would reverse many of the gains made there in the treatment of women and girls.

    “I am concerned,” he said. “I think the long occupation of the United States in Afghanistan and the evolution of the right of some girls to go to school has maybe decreased the adverse consequences of Taliban domination. I don’t think it will come back as bad as it was in the past, but I think it still exists.”

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2014/03/24/usa-today-capital-download-jimmy-carter-edward-snowden-probably-constructive/6822425/
    ———————-
    When Jimmy told his mother he was going to run for president, she said “President of what?”.

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  4. PD Shaw says:

    @John D’Geek:” The US was distinctly anti-interventionist all the way up to Pearl Harbor.”

    I don’t want to be pedantic, but since Doug is examining a poll concerning opinions on military supplies for Ukraine, it is relevant that the U.S. was supplying the Chinese militarily against the Japanese invasion in early 1940, and it might even have been popular.

    I think the U.S. history is full of foreign interventions, including small wars, particularly concerning maritime trade and the Western Hemisphere. I’m guessing Americans either don’t find Ukraine attractive enough to support, or they fear the consequences of a dispute with Russia.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    In contrast, 54 percent of Americans believed the U.S. did have a responsibility to intervene in Kosovo,

    Doug, was there a typo? Otherwise,

    As noted above, the Americans were just as skeptical of President Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo

    is inaccurate. If the quote you cited IS accurate, I find it very curious that Americans were in favor of our involvement there and wonder why.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @PD Shaw: Not to mention ‘Lend-Lease’.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. PD Shaw says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: The interesting one was the Flying Tigers. My grandfather fought in the China-Burma-India Theater during WWII, and ran into a former Flying Tiger on the way to Shanghai, who surprised him by explaining that he had been in the Theater since the Fall of 1941.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    The discussion on one of my posts this morning took a similar turn, Doug. The way I usually phrase it is that the default position for most Americans is non-interventionism. However, that’s one of the major divisions between ordinary Americans and American elites. American elites, for whatever reason, have been quite interventionist.

    That has a couple of implications. First, we intervene even when most Americans don’t favor it. That’s what it means to be part of the Powers-That-Be. You do things and then cobble together support later.

    That’s the other part. Elites have a lot of influence over opinion and American opinion on whether or not to intervene in any given conflict can turn on a dime. Check your numbers above carefully as to when the poll was taken. Support before intervention and after it’s already begun can be quite different.

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  9. John D'Geek says:

    @PD Shaw: Fair point.

    When I think of interventionism, I think of boots and/or bullets on the ground. The public was distinctly against getting directly involved in the war, though our President found ways around that particular sentiment by getting indirectly involved … including, as you mentioned, questionable programs like Lend-Lease.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    The most strident opposition to the U. S.’s entry into WWII came from the far right and the far left. Representatives of each group sometimes appeared on the same platform speaking out in opposition to U. S. involvement.

    Opposition from the far left evaporated when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 opposition from the far right largely disappeared. At that point very few were speaking out against war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. John D'Geek says:

    @Dave Schuler: Elites apparently have a lot more influence than I gave them credit for. I recently read White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, which I found quite interesting. While I disagreed with the author’s (apparent) thesis, the data presented regarding how the Elites ran Atlanta (and, by extension, pretty much every other city in the US) was quite compelling.

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  12. Tillman says:

    The American public seems to continue to be in a mood after Iraq and Afghanistan that is, at the very least, skeptical of intervention in foreign conflicts to a far greater degree than it was beforehand.

    A decade of continuous war with very little to show for it will do that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. grumpy realist says:

    I think the average American has seen far too often arguments that we can’t (pay for something useful but peaceful) because of (military projects). People are getting sick and tired of paying for something they don’t see any benefit from.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  14. Tyrell says:

    Certainly we should consider what we would gain from any involvement in overseas problems. President Eisenhower was against getting into brushfires in other countries. There should be no troops involved without a plan to win and an exit plan. An exit plan doesn’t mean just “bugging” out. Any military involvement and aid to other countries should include some expected behaviors from their leaders and government regarding human rights and other areas. We should not be helping other countries unless they are at least showing progress toward a democratic government and free market economy.

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  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @PD Shaw: As I recall, the Flying Tigers was a very unofficial program of help for the Chinese (been some years) All the pilots were very much on their own, don’t recall where the mechanics came from, the planes, spare parts, and munitions just appeared out of thin air! (wink wink, nudge nudge, know what I mean? know what I mean?) Been a few decades since I read about that part of the war, and who knows how much I recall correctly or how accurate it was.

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  16. PD Shaw says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I think it was officially organized in secret, perhaps with British partners. For example, active service men could take a leave of action to join the volunteers in a way they couldn’t otherwise. Like a nod and a wink. Probably completely irrelevant to this post about public attitudes since it was a secret program, but I always find it fascinating how far the U.S. was intervening in the Japanese-Chinese War before Pearl Harbor. Its something they don’t teach you in school.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. bill says:

    @Tillman: well there haven’t been anymore major attacks by sheetheads- that’s a plus.
    not many of us hail from crimea so we don’t really care all that much- these peeps have been killing each other for less during the past millennium. throw some lame sanctions at them and hope they go away, or let the eu grow a pair.

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  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @bill: We however are still subjected to racist stupidity like this drivel.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  19. bill says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: love that 1st amendment huh!?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. stonetools says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Well, hey, at least Bill isn’t repeating the right wing meme that the Crimean invasion happened because the weak,servile Obama didn’t projec t strength , so that the strong, masterful Putin the Barbarian was able to walk in and take what he wanted.
    Maybe Jack or Bitthead will be along to repeat that talking point.
    The current meme among themajority of conservative pundits and Republican Congresspeople is that 2014=1938, Putlin=Hitler, Obama=Chamberlain, Crimea=Sudetenland, Ukraine=Czeckoslavia. I guess in that scenario, Poland will be Poland-the red line that will trigger war should Putin invade.
    Things are a bit more unclear if you think Moldova, Georgiia or even the Baltics. I’m not sure if the average American will want to roll tanks if those countries get invaded.
    Hey, I guess in the above scenario,Rand Paul= Senator Vandenberg and Doug= member of the American First Committee?

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  21. Ben Wolf says:

    @PD Shaw: Right. The historical record of the fifty years leading up to WWII indicates the U. S. had few qualms regarding foreign interventions, given repeated deployments of Marines to Latin America whenever political developments were not to Washington’s tastes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. Ben Wolf says:

    @bill: The “sheetheads” are as good as you are.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. dennis says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    That’s the other part. Elites have a lot of influence over opinion and American opinion on whether or not to intervene in any given conflict can turn on a dime. Check your numbers above carefully as to when the poll was taken. Support before intervention and after it’s already begun can be quite different.

    You are absolutely correct, Dave. Johnson & Tierney cover this “phenomenon” in their piece “The Rubicon Theory of War.” Bacevich touches on this from time to time also.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. anjin-san says:

    @ bill

    love that 1st amendment huh!?

    You have the right to remain stupid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  25. Tillman says:

    @bill:

    well there haven’t been anymore major attacks by sheetheads- that’s a plus.

    Those aren’t results from the wars, those come from the FBI and the CIA and [arguably] the Patriot Act. All the wars have done is create more enemies for us down the line.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. ernieyeball says:

    All the wars have done is create more enemies for us down the line.

    2014 : U.S. trade in goods with Vietnam
    NOTE: All figures are in millions of U.S. dollars on a nominal basis, not seasonally adjusted unless otherwise specified. Details may not equal totals due to rounding.

    Month Exports….Imports….Balance
    January 2014 419.0…..2,428.4… -2,009.4
    TOTAL 2014 419.0…..2,428.4…-2,009.4

    So this means we sent $2Billion + to our former enemies down the line in January 2014.

    TOTAL..2013…..5,013.1….24,649.2…..-19,636.1 That’s US $19Billion/year.

    Looks like they are winning the war again…and again…and again…
    https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5520.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. dennis says:

    @bill:

    well there haven’t been anymore major attacks by sheetheads- that’s a plus.

    Sheetheads??? You said that, huh? I guess you hate ni33erz, sp1ckz, k1k3s, sand ni33erz, etc. all equally, don’t you? Here, let me assist your personal edification and indulgence in such things:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_slurs

    You’re welcome. (Geeezzz…)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. ernieyeball says:

    @dennis:..The list is incomplete. It should include ofay.
    As in “Dumb ofay son of a bitch”.
    I know I’ve heard that somewhere…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Tillman says:

    @dennis: I can tell how sheltered my life has been by reading this.

    I can’t help but love the ethnic slurs used to denigrate sell-outs, like Apple (red on the outside, white on the inside) for Indians who’ve lost touch with the cultural heritage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. dennis says:

    @Tillman:

    I hear ya. I just thought bill needed some new material. The old usual is pretty stale …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0