How Money Warps U.S. Foreign Policy

The key divide on America’s role in the world is no longer between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between elites and everyone else.
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On Sunday, when Hillary Clinton used an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg to take pointedly more hawkish stances than President Obama on Syria, Iran, and Gaza, observers chalked it up to her presidential ambitions. As one Democratic operative told Politico, Clinton’s advisors are “good poll readers.” On Tuesday, when Rand Paul declined to oppose U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, commentators interpreted it the same way.

The assumption that hawkishness is politically smart is deeply ingrained in the media’s coverage of the 2016 presidential race. But it’s bizarre. Because in both parties, the polling data is overwhelming: Americans think U.S. foreign policy is too hawkish already. Foreign policy has always been more elite-driven, and more insulated from public opinion, than domestic policy. But today’s elite-mass gap is the largest in decades. And regardless of your foreign-policy perspective, that’s a problem for American democracy.  

Think about the issues on which Hillary put distance between herself and Obama. She was particularly sharp in her criticism of the president’s reluctance to arm Syria’s rebels. But this supposedly shrewd political maneuver puts Hillary in the company of a mere 20 percent of the population. The last time the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether they support military aid to Syria’s rebels, 20 percent said yes and a whopping 70 percent said no. When respondents were asked in the same poll to evaluate a series of statements about Syria, the most popular was the “U.S. military is already too overcommitted.”

Hillary also took a harder line than Obama on Iran’s right to enrich uranium—a harder line that would make it harder to reach a final nuclear deal with Tehran. As with Syria, many commentators considered Hillary’s more hawkish stance to be politically astute. But again, the public is actually closer to Obama. According to a University of Maryland poll in July, 61 percent of Americans support a deal that would limit—but not prohibit—Iranian enrichment, while only 35 percent support increasing sanctions in an effort to eliminate Tehran’s enriched uranium altogether.

In general, Hillary made it clear that she supports a more interventionist foreign policy. Unlike Obama, she rarely talks about the financial burden of America’s foreign wars, and the need to balance America’s overseas commitments with its domestic resources. But, here again, the public is on Obama’s side. A Pew poll last year found that 51 percent of Americans believe their government is doing too much overseas, while only 17 percent say it is doing too little. This doesn’t mean Americans want to retreat from the world entirely. A full two-thirds, according to that same Pew poll, support greater American involvement in the global economy. Americans aren’t isolationists; they just don’t want to police the world. According to Pew, only 12 percent of Americans want the U.S. to be the “single world leader,” while 52 percent would prefer the U.S. share global leadership with other countries and be only “as active as others.”

Given these results, why do most commentators think Hillary’s hawkishness is politically wise? Because over the last year or so—as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq—elite opinion has grown more hawkish even though public opinion at large hasn’t. When it comes to foreign policy, in fact, the key divide is no longer between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between the elites of both parties and their rank and file. When asked about arming Syria’s rebels, an Iran deal that allows some uranium enrichment, and whether America should do more or less in the world, both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly take the more dovish view. On each question, the partisan divide is five percentage points or less.

The real gap emerges when you compare ordinary Americans to elites. According to Pew, for instance, rank-and-file Republicans are 34 percentage points more likely to want America to do less overseas. Rank-and-file Democrats are 31 points more likely to want America to do less. Members of the prestigious, bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations, by contrast, are 20 points more likely to say America should do more.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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