On the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the mood in the nation is grim.
The latest poll data indicates a general belief that America is less safe than it has been at any point since a group of evil men boarded airplanes with designs on death and destruction on a scale that would change the world forever.
The poll data is not wrong. Over the past year, we have witnessed the true failure of President Obama’s incoherent foreign policy: the rise of ISIS and the genocide against Iraqi Christians and Yazidis, Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine, an increasingly assertive China escalating longstanding tensions with Japan, a refugee crisis on the border, Egyptian and UAE attacks on Libya, the resurgence of European anti-Semitism and more.
A year ago, reacting to another Obama speech, I wrote this about another set of White House remarks on the need to strike Syria, albeit in a very different context:
“The difficulty Obama faces is similar to the challenge he faces in Washington today. For the bulk of his presidency, Obama has presented himself as external to the establishment – a story which presents him as a heroic agent of change confronting intransigence and foolishness on the part of powerful forces. He has done this within the foreign policy space as well, allowing him to present a critique as an academic in the classroom analyzing the failures of American policy in the past and present as if the buck stops elsewhere. This is fine when you are dealing with inherited policies and wars – but it does not work when you pursue and advocate for steps favored by the elites and at odds with the public view. In this situation, suddenly the credibility of the United States’ foreign policy and Obama himself aligned – and the president’s discomfort at being put in that position is absolutely evident. For all the talk of his ability to move opinion, he is far more comfortable as critic than commander.”
How little things change. Same as it ever was.
Of course, for those looking to blame someone other than the president, the people are a convenient target. One of the more persistent biases of America’s foreign policy elites is that the American public is schizophrenic and incoherent in their foreign policy views – that they want to have their cake and eat it too, or have peace without the necessary steps to sustain it.
Despite the opinion of elites on either extreme – whether motivated by humanitarian or democracy project aims – the fact is that, 13 years after 9/11, it’s remarkable how coherent and consistent the views of Americans really are. It’s the Obama view that is incoherent, bouncing between the sentiments of elites and uncomfortable in a position of leadership. Americans, for most of the 20th and 21st centuries, have been remarkably consistent in their views.
The American people are innately Jacksonian. They rejected the elite pushes on Syria and Libya for the same reason they now want to destroy ISIS – because they believe the purpose of the American military shouldn’t be to nation build or police countries, but to kill and destroy evildoers who threaten us and our interests. That’s why the humanitarian agenda and the democracy agenda couldn’t take hold in Syria – Assad was smart enough not to chop heads off Americans (that doesn’t make for good Vogue profile material, after all).
The media has trumpeted various polls over the past few years regarding the shifting opinions of Americans. But if you reconsider the elections of the past few years as the expression of American beliefs about foreign policy, a different picture emerges. Americans want a military that is strong but rarely deployed, and then deployed only to kill and destroy those who are clearly enemies of the nation and our interests. They want a state that maintains security without mass violations of privacy. They dislike permanent prisons and reject the droning of American citizens, but have less objections to the “enhanced interrogation” of prisoners (Hollywood has convinced Americans of two things over the past decade: gay marriage is great, and torture works).
Presidential candidates have responded to this consistency. The George W. Bush of 2000 rejected nation-building explicitly. The Barack Obama of 2008 emphasized a rollback of privacy and prisoner overreach while doubling down on the need to kill Osama Bin Laden and eradicate threats in Afghanistan. The thread that runs through the language of both candidates is entirely Jacksonian – a belief that those who hit us should not escape our reach, and that we ought to follow to the ends of the earth those who did us harm.
This is why Americans who balked at military action against Assad and Qhaddafi now endorse it when it comes to ISIS. It is not a shift of opinion on their part. It is consistent and coherent – a belief that there will always be dictators, and they will do awful things, but that the actions of evil men do not become our concern until the point when they take up arms against us and murder our fellow Americans. When that happens, no matter how slow to anger we are as a people, we make our wrath into a policy that will echo on the other side of the world.
Let the humanitarian interventionists or Code Pink isolationists talk of incoherence or inconsistency. The reality of America’s innately understood foreign policy doctrine is very simple and straightforward: Don’t tread on me.