Time to reexamine the American public's alleged disinterest in activist foreign policy

The president's decision to keep almost 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, albeit with a rapid withdrawal plan, and his speech at West Point suggest at least a modest "reset" of his approach to foreign policy and power. Such a course correction is frankly overdue.

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The world we thought we were in a few years ago — a post-Cold War march toward a democratic, Wilsonian world, challenged mainly with "boutique" foreign policy problems, some serious (al Qaeda and the U.S. response in Iraq), AIDS in Africa, many minor, none fundamental — is rapidly disappearing, as constellations of powerful actors, notably China and Russia, challenge the American global vision in various ways. Much of this is perhaps inevitable, given the opposition of much of "Eurasia" to the Western European/North American liberal worldview, but some of it is also the result of policy errors; financial mismanagement across the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries' spectrum, including the U.S.; and the deep U.S. engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan without commensurate gain. But a big part of the U.S. reticence on international security is anchored in the Obama administration's view that the American people are tired of foreign entanglements, especially military ones. This belief is central to its worldview, and until this is successfully challenged, any initiative to change the fundamental Obama administration course is likely to fail.

But ironically, there is considerable evidence, from polls themselves, from the reaction of Americans to power, and from presidential actions without popular sanction, suggesting considerable administration leeway in international security, short of whole armies fighting internal conflicts.

On the surface, public distaste for foreign "adventures" is well documented, based on two respected polling agencies' recent surveys of American audiences. The Pew Survey of America's Place in the World in 2013 found that 52 percent say the United States "should mind its own business internationally." Just 38 percent disagree — the highest negative in the nearly 50-year history of the measure. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2012 concluded similarly that those favoring our staying out of world affairs had risen to 38 percent, the highest since 1947. These public attitudes are not simply theoretical, as seen in the September 2013 public outcry over the use of force against Syrian chemical weapons use.

Looking at that result and the polls' message, no wonder the administration feels justified in avoiding military entanglements. But a deeper look reveals a different picture. For starters, much of this public response is focused on Iraq; here the Chicago Council Survey found 67 percent of Americans arguing that the Iraq war was not worth it.

But this is not automatic opposition to any use of force. A war of choice with vague transformational social engineering goals, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops over a decade with high casualties, is simply not popular, in Iraq, Afghanistan — or Vietnam. But the Chicago poll showed that 72 percent of Americans supported U.S. military action at some level in Libya, and there was no public opposition. Why? First, the operation had international support, the U.S. was "not in the lead," and duration, mission and casualties were all limited. More generally, according to the Chicago survey, many Americans do support use of U.S. force, from defense of Israel (49 percent) to responding to genocide (70 percent). Even with Syria, 58 precent agreed with a no-fly zone, although majorities from 67 to 81 percent opposed more direct action.

Furthermore, as a Pew survey in February 2013 indicated, 32 percent of those polled want to increase defense spending, and 41 percent to hold it at current levels. According to the Chicago Council survey, maintaining superior military power worldwide is seen as a "very important" foreign policy goal of the United States by 53 percent of those polled — well within the average range of 50 to 59 percent from 1994 to 2012, excepting a post-9/11 spike.

These statistics, our experience in Libya, and President Clinton's use of force on his own in 1998 and 1999 against Iraq, Serbia and al Qaeda, despite generally negative public sentiment, all point to the flexibility inherent in the presidency. According to the Pew survey, public support for use of force if necessary against Iran went from 50 to 56 percent, and opposition from 41 to 35 percent, over the course of the 2012 election campaign where both Obama and former Republican presidential nomine Mitt Romney made the case for military force. And there are costs if a president is too hesitant. The supposedly war-weary American public in the 2013 Pew poll gave Obama low marks on foreign policy: 51 percent say he is not being tough enough; very few say he is being too tough (5 percent). In short, what matters in most situations is presidential will, keeping casualties low and not "going alone." Within those parameters, the president not only can act, but is expected to do so by the American people.

Ambassador Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute where he focuses on U.S. strategies to counter Iran's efforts to expand its influence in the broader Middle East. One of the nation's most respected diplomats, Ambassador Jeffrey has held a series of highly sensitive posts in Washington and abroad. In addition to his service in Ankara and Baghdad, he served as assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration, with a special focus on Iran.