WASHINGTON — Over the last decade, the views of Americans on foreign policy have swung sharply from support for intervention to a profound mistrust of any military engagement overseas. Over the same period, political debates on foreign affairs have been bitter and polarized, defined by the question of whether the invasion of Iraq was a proper use of the nation’s power or a catastrophic mistake.
This contest for public opinion has taken place in the shadow of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. For understandable reasons, the United States was thrown off balance by the horrific events of 13 years ago, and we have never fully recovered.
The emergence of the Islamic State and its barbaric beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have shaken public opinion again. It is, of course, possible that the public’s guardedly increased hawkishness is another short-term reaction to an enraging news event. But there is a strong case that after all the gyrations in policy and popular attitudes, we are on the verge of a new politics of foreign policy based on a steadier, more sober and more realistic view of our country’s role in the world and of what it takes to keep the nation safe.
And it has fallen to a politically weakened President Obama to lay out this new vision and to build a durable consensus that can outlast his presidency. The paradox is that while polls show Americans more critical than ever of the president’s handling of foreign affairs, the strategy he is outlining toward the Islamic State has the potential of forging a unity of purpose across a wide swath of American opinion. In many ways, it is an approach that goes back to the pre-9/11 presidencies of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Two things are clear about where the public stands now: It is more ready to use American power than it was even a few months ago. But it remains deeply wary of again committing American combat troops to the Middle East. Thus the wide popularity of using air attacks to push back the Islamic State.
Obama’s extensive bombing campaign threads this needle. It is aimed at supporting Iraqi forces — including the Iraqi army, the Kurdish pesh merga and possibly Sunni militias and others — doing the fighting on the ground. Although the circumstances are quite different, Obama’s reliance on air power is reminiscent of Clinton’s actions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Obama is willing to send additional American troops to Iraq to advise and strengthen the Iraqi army and other allies, but not to carry the burdens of battle.
More generally, Obama is pushing a tough-minded multilateralism. His administration’s aggressive courting of allies in both the Middle East and Europe recalls the intense rounds of diplomacy that former Secretary of State James A. Baker III led on behalf of the first President Bush before the successful war to drive Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991.
Obama’s diplomacy has included pressure on Shiite politicians in Iraq to create a new government that Sunni Muslims could regard as inclusive. Secretary of State John Kerry’s news conference in Baghdad on Wednesday, just hours before Obama’s scheduled speech to the nation, underscored the importance of this initiative.
Above all, Obama is trying to distance his policy toward the Islamic State from the Iraq War, nation building and promises of sweeping change in the Middle East. He speaks of this new engagement more narrowly as “counterterrorism,” tying it back to the cause large majorities of Americans embraced after the Sept. 11 attacks and have never stopped supporting.
Some backers of the Iraq War will object to this implicit criticism of the past, and others will demand, as Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) did Tuesday on MSNBC, that the “president go back and say ‘I made a mistake'” when he confidently touted the successes of his early anti-terrorism efforts. In the meantime, anti-interventionists — who still loom large in the president’s party and in Republican libertarian quarters — will continue to be wary of any re-escalation of American military engagement. And a bitter election season is hardly an ideal moment for building bipartisanship.
Nonetheless, circumstances have presented Obama with both an opportunity and an obligation to steer American policy toward a middle course that acknowledges a need for American leadership and the careful use of American power while avoiding commitments that are beyond the country’s capacity to sustain. It is the balance we have been seeking since an awful day in September shook us to our core.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.
AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski
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