Americans have almost always been reluctant to go to war. In 1939, polls showed that most Americans not only wanted to stay out of war against
Today, Americans have additional reasons to be skeptical. There's the toll of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's the fear that any war in the Middle East will inevitably become a quagmire. And there's also a fundamental change in American attitudes toward their leaders.
The traditional center in American foreign policy — the rally-around-the-flag reflex presidents could once rely on — has eroded. One reason is partisan polarization: Many conservatives who might have supported military action under a Republican president are disinclined to help Obama in his hour of need. But it's not all partisan; public confidence in the federal government's ability to do anything right has reached an all-time low, according to a
Does that mean Americans have become isolationists, turning their backs on the world in a way that hasn't been seen for a century? That's not so clear.
It's true that public skepticism about U.S. engagement overseas is up. The Pew Research Center reported recently that 46% of Americans endorsed the sentiment that "the United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."
But that isn't an unprecedented phenomenon; Pew found anti-interventionist sentiment almost as high in 1974, at the end of the
Americans recoiled from Obama's proposal to attack Syria not only because they are skeptical about military adventures in general but because they weren't convinced that this particular venture was in the national interest.
"This was kind of a worst case," said Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center's founding director. "The public is very gun-shy about intervention, but especially in the Middle East, and especially in a case where the direct U.S. interest isn't clear. If there were a direct and major threat to the United States, you'd probably see a different picture."
Indeed, polls taken before earlier conflicts have shown that most Americans are willing to support military action when they are convinced that U.S. security is directly threatened — as they did, for example, when they were convinced (wrongly) by President
That's a problem Obama hasn't solved when it comes to Syria. He asked Americans to watch videotapes of children choking on sarin gas in a Damascus suburb — but that was a humanitarian appeal, not an invocation of national security. He argued that Americans had an interest in bolstering international norms against chemical weapons — but that sounded like an abstract principle, not an immediate threat.
"International norms?" scoffed Sen.
Others said the president needed to strike Syria to preserve his credibility vis-a-vis Iran — a genuine problem but no closer to a direct threat.
Americans are often tempted toward disengagement from the world, especially at the end of a long and costly war (in this case, two wars ), and especially when the question involves military action. It happened after Vietnam, it happened after the Cold War, and it's happening again today.
But after those earlier episodes, public opinion bounced back. Presidents
With Syria, it became clear that Obama's request for authority to intervene would be rebuffed. One result is that Americans look and sound more isolationist than they really are. That heightens a challenge that Obama and his successors already faced: not only dealing with a crisis in Syria but rebuilding a national consensus in favor of engagement with the world.