A Place To Bury Strangers

For me, the low point of the past several days has been watching Sarah Palin repeatedly criticize Obama for calling attention to Afghani civilian casualties. Leaving aside the incredible callousness of this line of attack, one hopes Palin realizes that bombing noncombatants can be pretty counterproductive. This also happens to be one of the best arguments for redeploying troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, as more troops on the ground will reduce our reliance on indiscriminate air power. That, incidentally, was the argument Obama was making in 2007 when his comments were first reported.

After considering the issue, I’m left with two unappetizing conclusions. Either Palin is unaware that bombing innocent civilians is extremely unhelpful or she’s willing to callously demagogue an issue that has serious implications for both our national security and moral standing. The former implies she’s incompetent; the latter suggests something else entirely. And while I recognize there’s a certain amount of obnoxious political posturing on both sides of the aisle, this incident really exemplifies all that is wrong with America’s foreign policy. We seem entirely oblivious to the real humanitarian consequences of our overseas blunders precisely because foreigners (in this case, the hapless Afghanis) bear the brunt of our mistakes.

Palin’s political opportunism suggests a broader truth about public opinion and American foreign policy. Contra Glenn Greenwald, I do not think that public opposition to the Iraq War is the same thing as a widespread rejection of foreign interventionism. Here is an example of his wishful thinking on the subject:

What is most notable about all of this is the broader point: there is a belief across the ideological spectrum (which I believe is wrong) that the Iraq disaster hasn’t changed the way that Americans think about war and foreign policy generally, but rather, merely reflects the long-standing fact that Americans only dislike wars that the U.S. is losing. At least now, this is plainly untrue. Many Americans have become convinced by the silly though widespread claim that the Surge Has Worked and that we are now “winning” in Iraq. But — as I’ve documented many times, and as is still true — increased perceptions of stability and even “victory” in Iraq have had very little effect on how Americans perceive of the wisdom of the war and, most importantly, whether we should withdraw.

Greenwald is undoubtedly correct that public opinion has dramatically turned against the war. But a few favorable focus groups aren’t a reliable indicator of a broader public backlash. Last night, Biden essentially endorsed NATO expeditions to Lebanon and Darfur, and Palin wholeheartedly agreed with him. I have yet to hear a single pundit decry Biden’s support for “liberal” interventionism as an election year liability. The fact that Palin so readily followed suit on this issue – one of the candidates’ few points of agreement – again demonstrates that both parties recognize the public’s continued faith in benign American hegemony.

Why is this the case? With foreign policy, the costs of intervention fall most heavily on foreigners, which also allows Palin to get away with her spurious criticisms. When an errant smart bomb levels a village in Afghanistan, no American is affected. We may empathize with the victims, but our willingness to identify with their loss is compromised by cultural and geographic distance.

Our empathy is also undermined by self-interest. The perceived benefits of US hegemony are both very obvious (protecting the homeland) and viscerally important (particularly after September 11th). The candidate most prepared to articulate a compelling national security vision will find a lot of voters willing to be persuaded. As our distance from September 11th grows and concerns over the economic crisis deepen, the salience of an aggressive foreign policy will gradually diminish. But for now, hegemony remains an easier sell than conciliation, retrenchment, and humility.

The case for hegemony is also easy to make to a low-information electorate. Blaming Al Qaeda, Saddam, or Ahmadinejad is much easier than examining the roots of Muslim resentment or our own complicity in the growth of anti-Americanism. Applying a rigorous cost-benefit analysis to the terrorist threat is also a non-starter. For better or worse, a compelling, easily-understood narrative is the best way to make your case to voters, and Palin and Biden’s performance yesterday demonstrates the thematic coherence of a pro-intervention platform.

In short, the contours of a democratic society make it extremely difficult for any candidate, however articulate, to present a compelling case for non-interventionism (or even a scaled-back approach to foreign affairs). The best political rejoinders to American hegemony are the tangible domestic costs of intervention – heavy American casualties, “building firehouses in Baghdad instead of [insert city here]”- which is why Greenwald can identify such a marked shift in public opinion. Unfortunately, this shift is purely reactive and not particularly durable. Remember that Democrats were dogged with a damning reputation for pacifism after Vietnam, despite the fact that the war lost public support as early as 1968.

The debate over the Iraq War mirrors this underlying reality. Pew Surveys show consistent majorities in favor of the war until late 2004/early 2005. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that November and December of 2004 and January of 2005 saw marked increases in the monthly totals of US combat fatalities. This interactive graph from USA Today also suggests that public opinion is very responsive to casualty increases; antiwar spikes are heavily correlated with combat deaths. In other words, when foreign interventions exact tangible costs, the public is willing to reconsider its support. If foreign wars remain political abstractions, however, they’re much easier to sell, which is why opposition to American hegemony remains politically problematic. A debacle like the Iraq War doesn’t start costing anything until we’ve already gone through with it, so anti-interventionists are fighting an uphill battle from the start.

I’m unsure how to respond to this electoral reality. For all his faults, Ron Paul put forward a compelling anti-imperialist message coupled with real small-government credibility, and he was exiled from the Republican mainstream for his troubles. On the Democratic side of the spectrum, Obama won the primary by appealing to a progressive, anti-war base, but I think this reflects a momentary shift in public opinion against the invasion, not any deep support for abandoning American leadership. Obama’s foreign policy vision – and some of his more egregious panders – also leave little doubt that he is aware of the public’s tacit support for US hegemony.

I don’t offer any solutions. But I’m also not deluding myself about the nature of the problem. Until we recognize the structural incentives of American politics, non-inerventionists will continue to beat their heads against the proverbial brick wall.

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