The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
NYT Mistakes American Prudence for "Isolationist Streak"

Drone

The NYT published a story today on a poll that concluded that the United States is in the midst of an “isolationist streak” because Americans are largely opposed to sending the military to intervene in Syria and North Korea. We think this analysis misses the mark by confusing sensible prudence with isolationism.

First, here are some of the poll’s (PDF) more notable findings:

Interest in the Syrian conflict has waned, with 39 percent of those surveyed saying they are following the violence closely, a 15-percentage-point drop since a CBS News poll conducted in March, before the Boston Marathon bombings.

Sixty-two percent of the public say the United States has no responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and antigovernment groups, while just one-quarter disagree. Likewise, 56 percent say North Korea is a threat that can be contained for now without military action, just 15 percent say the situation requires immediate American action and 21 percent say the North is not a threat at all.

Not wanting to send troops into a mess like Syria can hardly be considered a “isolationist streak.” The same goes for thinking that now is not the time for a war with North Korea. Nobody at Via Meadia is pushing to send troops to Syria or invade the DPRK. For that matter, we would rather strike a deal with Iran than send it airstrikes. But none of those positions in any way represents a “streak.”

Growing disinterest in Syria is less a reflection of isolationism than it is a perception that the conflict has turned into a stalemate. Certainly recent news reports have been highlighting the reality that this isn’t really a struggle between dictator-loving goons and noble freedom fighters. A conflict between two groups of thugs in a far-off land isn’t nearly as engaging. One suspects that interest in Egypt has also died down since the illusory hopes of the “Arab Spring” began to fade.

There’s also something the pollsters can’t measure but which is vitally important in understanding public opinion: national leaders, especially the President, aren’t currently using the bully pulpit to push intervention in either Syria or North Korea. So, quite understandably, the public doesn’t much want to intervene abroad with troops.

That doesn’t mean that the American public doesn’t want to intervene at all. As the poll points out, people are happy to use drones and other remote assets to achieve national goals in far-away lands. They favor watchful waiting, plus drone strikes where needed, over the two alternatives: rash interventions with ground troops and neglect of the outside world altogether.

[Drone image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on April 30, 2013 12:40 pm
  • http://twitter.com/gtotango Greg Olsen

    After WW I, Britain determined that their security frontier was the Rhine, due to the development of long range bombers. The US is in a difficult position because the Syrian WMD stockpile may end up in non-state actors’ hands.

    • Corlyss Drinkard

      I suggest ours would not be a difficult position if we didn’t have such a long recent history of spineless presidents who have feared strength and demonstrations of strength in defense of the international system more than they have feared the consequences of appearing weak. Equivocators and time-servers all.

  • USNK2

    How many of those polled know that the Korean War, unlike WW2 (except for the quirk of Japan vs. Russia), has never ended? The dream of ending war after 1945 has led to so many ‘frozen conflicts’, and the associated blowback, no wonder ‘those polled’ do not want another unfinished, never-ending war.
    As for Syria? I hope their Druze, Circassians, and Christians somehow win.
    Mostly, I think Americans are tired of all the chatter about everything EXCEPT jobs and the ever-sputtering US economy.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    “We think this analysis misses the mark by confusing sensible prudence with isolationism.”

    I might agree if we didn’t have a long history of public disenchantment with Washington’s oft-referenced “foreign entanglements.” Americans traditionally look across the vasty oceans and see only chaos and danger, whether we’re talking about European wars or immigration’s ideological contagion or globalization of cheap labor. Wise men have prosecuted much effective foreign policy in eras when rudimentary communication allowed them breathing room to make the necessary decisions and take the necessary actions. It’s been a lot harder since the communications revolution of the post-war era has allowed both instantaneous knowledge of events and enabled a powerful and borderline anti-American media to propagandize its pet likes and dislikes endlessly. Kathleen Hall Jamieson refers to “the press effect:” if the press covers it, it’s news worthy of one’s attention; if the press doesn’t cover it, it might as well not exist or happen. We have seen this with so many stories over the last 40+ years. WRM alluded to it in his wry piece on the press coverage of the Sandy aftermath and how different it would have been had there been a Republican president.

  • http://davidscommonplacebook.wordpress.com/ David Hoffman

    I cannot think of a single reason why we need to get involved in the civil war in Syria.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Luke-Lea/579129865 Luke Lea

    NYT is always trying to manipulate the course of events. Not good. Sulzberger should really go for the good of the paper, for the good of the country.

    • Jim Luebke

      NYT should really go, for the good of the country.