New poll reveals Americans demand a pivot to restraint

New poll reveals Americans demand a pivot to restraint
© Greg Nash

The divide between the foreign policy elite in Washington, D.C. and the American public is wide and getting wider. The American people are increasingly more restrained than the establishment that is responsible for crafting U.S. national security policy in their name. 

Those are the two main conclusions one draws after reading the latest report from the Eurasia Group Foundation’s Mark Hannah and Caroline Gray, who commissioned a national survey to investigate the foreign policy preferences of American voters across the country.    

Americans are crying out for a far different, judicious and more thoughtful U.S. foreign policy. One that prioritizes military restraint and common-sense diplomatic engagement as much as administrations over the last quarter-century have prioritized ill-advised and counterproductive overreach.

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Take NATO as a prime example. Hardly a day goes by without some influential opinion or policymaker applauding NATO for being the oldest and most successful military alliance on the planet. American voters, however, have a much more skeptical view of the 70-year old organization.

The EGF survey shows a public not at all unified on the prospect of supporting military retaliation against Moscow if Russia invades a Baltic member of the alliance.

This specific finding will hit boosters of the transatlantic community as a terrifying instance of a U.S. wobbling on its alliance obligations, but the number actually points to a popular gripe: that NATO is static, unaccountable and in desperate need of internal reform.

Lawmakers in Washington can’t blame their constituents for questioning the wisdom of sending U.S. troops into a hypothetical war with a nuclear-armed Russia. Especially when it's on behalf of a NATO ally and the vast majority of wealthy European member states pinch pennies on their own defense, but are happy to offload the bulk of the responsibility on Uncle Sam’s shoulders.

If Europeans aren’t willing to invest in their own resilience as called for under Article 3 of NATO, how can we expect Americans to continue supporting Article 5 without reservation?

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Skepticism of U.S. military action extends to humanitarian intervention as well. A strong 47 percent plurality of Americans advocate for restraint in cases where a foreign population is being brutalized or victimized by their own governments. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise; after the invasion of Iraq and the U.S.-led operation against Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, American voters are far more likely to think twice before committing the United States to internal conflicts in foreign countries where the dynamics are complicated, and little understood in Washington.

This conclusion has less to do with a lack of generosity in the American people and far more to do with past experience, where civilian protection missions often have the unintended effect of making the plight of civilians even harder.

The U.S. bombing campaign against Qaddafi’s regime ended a 40-year dictatorship, but Qaddafi’s departure opened the doors to a fierce and bloody competition between Libya’s multiple armed factions. 

The Libya of 2019 is a hot, disgusting soup of conflicting self-interest and a playground for regional powers (the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, Turkey, and Qatar). The anarchic security environment in the North African country is far from the burgeoning and stable democracy proponents of the intervention set out to accomplish — and this isn't even mentioning the Europeans who are today dealing with a migrant crisis exacerbated by a destabilized Libya.

Is it any wonder Americans are less than enthused, if not opposed, to deploying the U.S. military in other nation’s internal conflicts — particularly when direct U.S. national security interests are not at risk?

Understandably, U.S. policy in Afghanistan also comes under harsh scrutiny in the survey Over 18 years since the first U.S. air strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban targets, 12,000 American troops remain on Afghan soil defending an Afghan government in Kabul defined by corruption. 

Washington is dropping an ordnance on enemy targets at a record pace this year. The mission of obliterating al Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure in the country and punishing the Taliban was achieved in late 2001. This was when Taliban fighters were pleading for mercy and Osama Bin Laden was hiding in a cave to shield himself from U.S. bombing.

Despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers release defense bill with parental leave-for-Space-Force deal House Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday Houston police chief excoriates McConnell, Cornyn and Cruz on gun violence MORE’s repeated declarations about withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, this administration continues to maintain an indefinite force presence at a cost of $45 billion a year.

In a Pew Research Center poll published in July, 58 percent of U.S. veterans and 59 percent of adults said the benefits of the war in Afghanistan have not been worth the costs of fighting it.

The Eurasia Group Foundation’s study proves these numbers are the rule, not the exception: A 40 percent plurality of American voters want the U.S. to end the war in Afghanistan immediately, even if a peace deal is out of reach. Those numbers will likely increase every additional day thousands of American soldiers remain in the war zone.

A foreign policy of restraint is an objective Americans from all walks of life are demanding from the national security apparatus in Washington. To avoid preventable blunders in the future and to make the U.S. stronger, Washington elites would be wise to take into account the sober judgment of the people they are supposed to represent.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner