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]