Why are US President Barack Obama’s recent approval ratings on foreign policy dismal, asks one pundit, when he does what a majority of Americans like him to do?
His answer: “They’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.” And he adds: “To follow a leader to triumph inspires loyalty, gratitude and affection. Following a leader in retreat inspires no such emotions.”
The reference here is to Obama’s position on Ukraine and Syria, the two places where two out of three Americans believe their country should not intervene militarily. Two-thirds also believe the US shouldn’t arm the Ukrainians.
The US president reflected this view on two separate occasions last week, and highlighted the limits of military means to meet the required ends in Syria or Ukraine.
Obama insisted: “The United States could not have stopped the humanitarian crisis in Syria with military strikes.” He added: “It’s not that it’s not worth it. It’s after a decade of war, you know, the United States has limits.”
And the president ruled out military response to Russia’s moves, suggesting instead that pressure and diplomacy are the way forward in the Crimea dispute: “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.”
And he added later: “Now is not the time for bluster… the situation in Ukraine, like crises in many parts of the world, does not have easy answers nor a military solution.”
So what is shameful about these sobering statements? Are Americans ungrateful or scandalised to be associated with level-headedness? Do they – sort of deep down – prefer to bomb Syria and Crimea, despite the misery of similar experiences during a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would they have been proud of their leader bombing or occupying more nations – really?
The short answer is: No, they wouldn’t.
There are more than a few reasons for the discrepancy between Americans’ high approval ratings for the president’s policies and low approval ratings for his management of these policies.
The paradox lies not with the public opinion; it lies with its gatekeepers.
The pundits of the foreign policy establishment continuously poison public opinion and litter the public landscape with nonsense about a divine US mission in the world.
In response to Obama’s rather temperate statement: “The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game,” the smug Washington pundit contends, “That’s the kind of sentiment you expect from a Miss America contestant asked to name her fondest wish, not from the leader of the free world explaining his foreign policy.”
And when a president advances a somewhat modest, more sober agenda than that of his reckless predecessor; one that looks carefully at how the US could meet its global responsibilities and objectives, he’s seen as weak and his vision “anaemic” – including by the self-promoting moderates.
And as the US administration weighs its options towards Moscow, expect the editorialists of the most influential publications in the country including the measured New York Times to be gung-ho about penalties, sanctions and military pressure.
A Washington Post editorial spoke of a naïve president whose worldview is “based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality”.
And The Wall Street Journal warned Obama of letting Russian President Vladimir Putin get away with carving up Ukraine.
These are only a few samples of the hundreds, even thousands, of so-called analysts, editorialists and “public intellectuals” who continue to ridicule US restraint as retrenchment, and smear realism as defeatism.
These pseudo academics, pseudo intellectuals, and pseudo historians fill the ranks of east coast foreign policy think-tanks and outlets while the real experts – the competent majority – either stay away or are kept away.
Instead of anthropologists, you’re likely to meet “terroristologists”, and instead of sociologists, you’ll listen to media consultants. Instead of legal minds, be prepared for the lobbyists with big expense accounts.
There are so many of them. So assertive, so wrong, so often. And yet they remain the dominant force on the airwaves, advisory groups and special policy commissions. They’re omnipresent at major media outlets, the evening news, Sunday talk shows, opinion pages, and cover stories. Ironically, the “wronger” they are, the more successful and more visible they become.
But they are in a class of their own, unaccountable and untouched as long as they reinforce the Washington consensus, namely: The US is the world’s greatest, truly indispensable and most benevolent superpower.
Instead of enriching and expanding the public discourse over important foreign policy issues, they obsessively try to control it. Anyone who dares to disagree or voice a different opinion is viewed as a “contrarian” or worse, an apologist to evil.
In recent times, they’ve mostly proven to be utterly wrong about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and of course about Palestine, among others. Most supported and promoted George W Bush’s “stupid” war on Iraq until it was no longer fashionable to do so following the turmoil, death and mayhem. But they never really apologised for it, alas.
Worse, they theorised for and promoted similar escalation against Iran over its nuclear programme until the president pulled the rug from under them.
And today, they speak of how the US must punish, humiliate and ultimately defeat Russia over its “sabre rattling”. They whine over “losing Crimea” – as if it ever belonged to them – ignoring the fact that Russia lost and the West gained a foothold in the much larger and more affluent Ukraine.
They might be Realists, Liberal-Internationalists, or Neoconservatives, but they all preach the miracle of US power. And they’re more than ready to chastise the president for concentrating on his domestic agenda or on diplomacy, when in their view, the world is becoming an ever more “dangerous” place!
These pundits cry over “the good old times” when the US threw its weight around; when leaders from all corners of the world kept quiet as Washington spoke. But they ignore the fact that the US still spends on its military as much as the combined expenditures of all other nations of the world. It makes up less than 5 percent of the world population but makes up for 50 percent of its military spending.
They see the US as the world’s policeman, protecting allies and clients throughout the globe, but ignore the fact that Americans are terribly bruised from a dozen years of war and are not interested in more wars and occupations.
They speak of US isolationism when Washington pivots towards Asia and deploys ever-greater naval forces around China.
Even the much-neglected, even forgotten Africa has had its share of US military actions under Obama. In 2013, the US military carried out a total of 546 “activities” on the continent, a 217 percent increase over five years ago.
Not to speak of the transnational drone wars and the global surveillance programme across the US and the world.
But the pundits expect more. Demand more. And continuously incite for more.
They know that presidents come and go, but the foreign policy establishment is here to stay as a revolving door between, to and from government: It’s imperial. It’s rich – publicly and privately financed. And it’s dangerous not only for the US but for those at the receiving end of its power.
Only the popularisation and democratisation of the debate over foreign policy beyond its east coast self-absorbed elites and beltway cynics could make a difference. The process has started, but it has some way to go.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.