In the end, Americans just aren't interested in getting involved in promoting democracy overseas.
Syrian rebels continue to be bombarded by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. And in the wake of a failed Security Council resolution that would have pushed for a transfer of power, the embattled leader shows little sign of giving up the reins — though he faces mounting international sanctions and efforts by his neighbors to push the nation towards a democratic government.
While harping on the need for Assad to stop the violence, President Barack Obama is throwing cold water on prospects of a Libya-like military intervention. And the administration’s reluctance to use force jibes with the philosophy of most Americans, who see spreading democracy as a good thing in general, but are much more ambivalent these days about using the military to topple dictators.
Obama learned this lesson first-hand in the effort to remove Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Just before the president announced the enforcement of a no-fly zone last March, Americans were split roughly evenly on whether this was a good idea, with 49 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The public was somewhat more supportive of the United States acting as a participant in a no-fly zone.
But Obama faced criticism over doing too little or too much in Libya, and his approval rating on the issue teetered throughout the conflict. The public approved of his efforts by 52 percent to 31 percent after Qaddafi’s killing, which capped a successful coordination between rebels and NATO forces to take down his regime. Nevertheless, fewer than half the public said the United States did the right thing by using military force in Libya, according to a November Quinnipiac University poll.
Why the lack of enthusiasm for what was probably an ideal outcome for Obama’s foreign policy team? In general, Americans don’t care too much about swooping in to replace dictators (nor dispatching bogeymen, as we noted last week). Only 13 percent of the public said that promoting democracy in other nations was a top foreign policy priority in a 2011 Pew poll, dead last among other foreign policy objectives, behind human rights and climate change. Protecting jobs of Americans workers and terrorism ranked highest, with over eight in 10 calling each a "top priority."
It’s not that democracy isn’t seen as something worth promoting, in general. Six in 10 Americans agreed the United States should be promoting democracy around the world in a 2007 Pew Research Center poll. But even more — 70 percent in a recent CBS News poll — said that the United States should stay out of other country’s affairs rather than try to replace dictatorships. (If that’s right, though, shouldn’t Ron Paul being doing better?) But even when civilians are under violent attack by their own government, Americans split evenly on military intervention.
The obvious exceptions to this rule are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both involved military invasions to unseat a government that Washington didn’t like. But both also involved much more than spreading democracy for its own sake. Afghanistan provided a haven for Osama bin Laden, and Iraq (right or wrong) was seen as having weapons of mass destruction and connections with terrorists.
Take away those factors, and Americans are much more leery to cheer the drumbeat. In a 2006 Fox News poll, the public two to one supported using military force only if "provoked or attacked" by another country.
In an election year with the economy and jobs at the front of voters’ minds, a crusading effort to fight for democracy in Syria might seem like a sure bet to shore up popularity. But Obama seems more favorable to sanctions and diplomacy, and for most Americans, that’s probably just as well.
John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.
Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.
His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).
Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”
In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.| Rational Security |