The Rasmussen polling organization is out with a shock poll that the entire Washington establishment needs to study: 51 percent of voters surveyed said they wanted all US troops out of Europe, now. Only 29 percent favored keeping the troops where they are.
US troops have been in Europe since World War Two. In the Cold War, they not only kept the Russians out; they gave the rest of the Old World the confidence that Germany would not come storming back for a rematch. The presence of US troops helped give western Europe its longest era of peace since Roman times.
Since the end of the Cold War the US presence in Europe has made much less sense to the average American, but foreign policy junkies like yours truly think that it still serves a purpose. Not only do those troops provide security in new NATO countries like Poland and the Baltic republics; US bases in Europe are important in dealing with terror and other problems in the Middle East and without the US presence in Europe it is unlikely that NATO in its present form can survive.
The Rasmussen poll notes that 29 percent of the public still supports the US presence in Europe and that 20 percent is undecided. My guess is that with strong presidential leadership those numbers would change. The arguments for the US presence in Europe are credible, clear and compelling.
Unfortunately the current White House doesn’t like to talk about the pointy end of American foreign policy. It uses troops and sends them into battle around the world, but the President doesn’t often use the bully pulpit to explain why we must fight, why we need a strong military, why we need to deploy, and why sometimes it is cheaper and safer to have our first line of defense thousands of miles from our shores.
My guess is that if President Obama went to leading Democratic and Republican officials, they would join him in an effort to explain the importance of the NATO alliance and our European bases — and that this effort would turn those numbers around.
But foreign policy in a democracy isn’t a chess game for elites. If you don’t build support for your policies and your commitments, the support ebbs away. It is very natural for Americans to wonder why we still have troops in Europe almost seventy years after World War Two and a generation after the end of the Cold War. And it’s reasonable for people to ask why we should spend so much of our money to provide a security shield for countries who refuse to carry their fair share of the common burden.
These are reasonable questions — and they have reasonable answers. But this administration hasn’t done nearly enough to lay out the facts and the ideas behind America’s grand strategy in Europe to the public. (To be fair, the same criticism could be made of its predecessor.) Our national leadership is taking the national commitment to Europe and to NATO for granted, and this is a major mistake.
Americans over a certain age don’t really need to be told why we built NATO and why we are so determined to keep it strong, but every new generation needs to reach its own understanding of the pillars of our foreign policy. Given that many colleges fail to teach much about American foreign policy (beyond, perhaps, some references to the horrors of Vietnam and the dangers of Islamophobia), and that the national leadership is largely silent on the subject of America’s strategy, it’s not surprising that support for our European deployments is weak.
My guess is that while Governor Romney and President Obama differ on some details about our NATO policy, they are in fundamental agreement on the main lines of our European strategy. It would be nice to hear some of that during this campaign, but whether or not that happens, the Washington establishment needs to stop taking the public for granted. There is a certain arrogance at work here — a belief that public opinion can be ignored for decades and that the peasants will pay taxes and do what they are told without asking questions.
That isn’t how it works anymore, and unless the establishment figures this out, much more than the NATO alliance could be at risk.