Pursuing ISIS to the Gates of Hell

The beheading of two journalists has transformed public debate over U.S. foreign policy.

Jason Reed/Reuters

Over the past two weeks, the American foreign-policy debate has dramatically changed. The key to understanding why lies in a book.

The book is called Special Providence. Published 13 years ago by Walter Russell Mead, it remains, for my money, the best analysis of American foreign policy written in our time. Mead argues that America has four foreign-policy traditions. He calls the first “Wilsonianism.” It represents America’s missionary desire to spread civilization across the globe. Once upon a time, spreading “civilization” meant spreading Christianity. Now it means spreading democracy and human rights. Samantha Power is a Wilsonian.

The second tradition is “Hamiltonianism.” It refers to the belief that America, as a trading nation separated from our largest markets by vast oceans, must make the world safe for American commerce. For our domestic prosperity, we must maintain an economically open, politically stable world order. George H.W. Bush is a Hamiltonian.

The third is “Jeffersonianism.” It reflects a deep-seated fear that if America entangles itself in imperial ventures abroad, we will destroy liberty at home. Glenn Greenwald and Ron Paul are Jeffersonians.

The fourth—and for our purposes most relevant—is “Jacksonianism.” It refers to the peculiar combination of jingoism and isolationism forged on the American frontier. Bill O’Reilly is a Jacksonian. Jacksonians don’t want to fashion other countries in America’s image. They don’t care about fattening corporate bottom lines. But if you mess with them—violate their honor—they’ll pursue you to the gates of hell.

If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s because Joe Biden uttered it on Wednesday about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He said it, I suspect, in part because he recognizes that over the last two weeks, America’s foreign-policy debate has turned Jacksonian in a way that could cause the Obama administration a great deal of trouble.

I’m not talking about the elite debate. Foreign-policy elites began growing more hawkish almost a year ago, after Barack Obama abandoned his plans to bomb Syria for using chemical weapons and Russia swallowed Crimea. But until recently, those elite criticisms enjoyed little public traction. That’s because, in Mead’s terminology, they were largely Wilsonian and Hamiltonian. Wilsonians were upset about Bashar al-Assad’s human-rights violations and Russia’s offenses against international law. Hamiltonians feared that unless America acted forcefully, our declining credibility would undermine world order.

But Wilsonianism and Hamiltonianism are largely elite traditions, and the public was unmoved. When Obama asked Congress to support military strikes against Assad last fall, the public overwhelmingly said no. For all the denunciations of Obama’s Ukraine policy this summer by Beltway hawks, Republican congressional candidates barely mentioned it. Up until very recently, public opinion was strongly “Jeffersonian.” Americans generally told pollsters that their government was too militarily entangled overseas already.

The beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have changed that. Republican Senate candidates in Alaska, Georgia, and New Hampshire are now tying their Democratic opponents to Obama’s supposed lack of a strategy against ISIS. Democratic Senators Bill Nelson and Tim Kaine are urging Congress to authorize the president to bomb the Sunni extremist group in Syria and Iraq. Last September, when YouGov.com asked Americans whether they supported air strikes “against Syria,” only 20 percent said yes. Last week, by contrast, when it asked whether Americans supported strikes “against ISIS militants in Syria,” 63 percent said yes.

In narrow policy terms, the arguments for military intervention have not improved over the last two weeks. It’s still not clear if Iraq’s government is inclusive enough to take advantage of American attacks and wean Sunnis from ISIS. It’s even less clear if the U.S. can bomb ISIS in Syria without either empowering Assad or other Sunni jihadist rebel groups.

But politically, that doesn’t matter. What’s causing this Jacksonian eruption is the sight of two terrified Americans, on their knees, about to be beheaded by masked fanatics. Few images could more powerfully stoke Jacksonian rage. The politicians denouncing Obama for lacking a “strategy” against ISIS may not have one either, but they have a gut-level revulsion that they can leverage for political gain. “Bomb the hell out of them!” exclaimed Illinois Senator Mark Kirk on Tuesday. “We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age,” added Texas Senator Ted Cruz. These aren’t policy prescriptions. They are cries for revenge.

And for the Obama administration, they are politically perilous. All of a sudden, the domestic politics of foreign policy bear a vague resemblance to the late Carter years. The Iran hostage crisis did not lend itself to a simple policy response either. But to many Americans, it represented a primal humiliation, broadcast on screens across the world. And the hostage crisis primed Americans to see the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year as yet another example of Jimmy Carter failing to prevent America from being disrespected around the world. The danger for Obama is that the ISIS beheadings color the public’s view of his Russia policy in the same way.

Obama has always had trouble with Jacksonians, who tend to live outside cities and be older, white, and less educated than Obama’s political base. By killing Osama bin Laden, he temporarily neutralized the political threat they posed, and left Mitt Romney unable to rouse them in 2012. But the memory of that Jacksonian triumph has now faded. And Obama’s cool, measured rhetoric—his talk of “shrink[ing]” ISIS and making it “manageable”—can grate on Jacksonian ears. Jacksonians, Mead argues, do not like half-measures. They never forgave Harry Truman for firing Douglas MacArthur and settling for a stalemate in Korea. They complained bitterly that civilians in Washington weren’t letting American troops win in Vietnam. For Jacksonians, you don’t “degrade” a group that beheads Americans. You annihilate it.

For Obama, there’s an irony to all this. After 9/11, he wisely resisted the Jacksonian fervor of the moment and opposed the war in Iraq. He surely knows that it is precisely at moments like this, when politicians and pundits are demanding vengeance, that presidents are most prone to do “stupid stuff.” He’s staked his foreign-policy legacy on being the president who doesn’t do that. But it is precisely because of this caution and calm that he’s losing political control, even in his own party. And God knows how many beheadings are still to come.