When Michael C. Hudson and I began penning an article on the foreign policy implications for the Middle East under the next presidential administration, we wanted to underscore an issue neglected in a campaign season defined by the economy. Soon enough, our issue and region of choice were brought to the forefront by the shocking deaths of American diplomats in Libya and the rapid spread of small-scale but dramatic demonstrations outside US embassies throughout the Muslim world. It is an unfortunately sensational storyline. Featured are an anti-Semitic/Islamic fraudulent expat, a soft-core porn director, and a preacher of vitriol on the one hand, and opportunistic politicians maximizing the anti-Western sentiment of their (in some cases overly-militarized-thanks-to-the-West) followers. Add to that an exploitative Republican presidential candidate, significant Islamophobia, and a deleterious 24-hour news cycle, and we have a production nearly as distasteful as the film that started it all.
Indeed, Washington (and its intellectual urban brethren) has been set alight by it all. Social network feeds ruptured with commentary, punditry, arguments, and even some humor, while the traditional media desperately followed. And as I happened to be traveling the physical distance between Ohio and DC, I was struck once again by the mental distance between the Beltway and the experiences and sentiments of the majority of Americans. As commentators speculated about the electoral implications of the events in Libya, I thought not. And as it happens, I was on the same page as the presidential candidates. One week after the events, President Obama was back in Ohio to ensure auto manufacturers they would be protected from China’s export subsidies. That same day, Mitt Romney made appeals to Hispanic businesspeople in California. It’s back to business, and business is the economy.
But are Americans really indifferent to foreign policy? If they are, do we just set aside the unmistakable foreign policy characteristics of the above two issues -- trade and immigration -- not to mention the other international issues (current gas prices hurt!) that affect their everyday lives?
On one level, they are relatively unconcerned. In August 2012, Quinnipiac asked voters in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin (all swing states) about the importance of the economy in their presidential vote. A full 90 percent ranked the economy as “extremely or very important.” That proportion dropped by nearly 30 points on foreign policy, which 60-70 percent ranked as extremely or very important. But the two questions were independent of one another, and it is reasonable to think that poll-takers will say an issue that sounds as important as foreign policy is indeed important.
That would explain why Pew Research Center found in early 2012 that, asked to identify the most important issue to them in a mutually exclusive way, only 7 percent of Americans chose foreign issues. Meanwhile, 65 percent opted for economic issues. Not only is that 7 percent low, it is lower than it has been in the last decade. In 2004, 41 percent of Americans ranked foreign issues as the single most important problem facing the country; 25 percent chose economic problems. Back then, we were at the peak of two foreign wars led by a loudly interventionist president, and the economy was not sorry for it. National priorities clearly change based on our immediate experiences.
But we are still at war and the international scene is as convulsive as ever, as embodied by the embassy demonstrations. So by taking an even wider view, we might find that American indifference may be better understood as a mindful withdrawal of engagement from the rest of the world.
More than at any time in nearly two decades, 83 percent of Americans feel that we should pay less attention to problems overseas. In a similar vein, the number of Americans who feel we should not be playing an active role in world affairs has doubled since 2009 to 14 percent. In May 2011, according to Pew, 46 percent of Americans thought that we should prioritize the reduction of our military commitments; back in 2004, only 35 percent thought so. Among Republicans the trend is starker: only 27 percent thought we should reduce our commitments in 2004; by 2011, 44 percent thought so. Indeed, ever since George W. Bush left office, Republicans increasingly support concentrating more on problems at home.
This disengagement from the world encompasses, of course, the Middle East. Even the Arab “Spring” engendered little enthusiasm among Americans, despite its natural fit into our democratic values and the perceived success of the NATO intervention in Libya. Long before the current issues, even before Syria became violent and a Muslim Brother became president of Egypt, less than a quarter of Americans thought that the regional changes would be good for the US; 35 percent felt they would be bad, according to the same Pew survey. More Americans believed that the changes would not lead to lasting improvements for the people of the region than those who did. According to a CBS News Poll from November 2011, over half of Americans believe we should not be involved in Afghanistan, coming up from less than 40 percent in 2009. An overwhelming 77 percent approved of our withdrawal from Iraq, with 67 percent believing it was not worth it in the first place.
To the extent that they do engage, Americans are primarily concerned with protecting US jobs from overseas competition and fighting terrorism. But there is clearly little appetite to pursue these or other interests in a manner that would require the large-scale intervention that defined the Bush years. It should be noted that Mitt Romney, already trailing Obama on voter confidence in his foreign policy stances, is out of sync with the trends. As Hudson and I noted, he questioned the wisdom of the withdrawal from Iraq and the impending one from Afghanistan, he has mocked Obama’s “leading from behind” approach to Libya, and his team contains many prominent neo-conservatives with ideas for intervention in Syria and Iran. But alas, Americans are back to business, and business is not foreign policy.
Rana B. Khoury is a writer and researcher whose interests and education span the Middle East and the Midwest. She received her BA in Political Science from American University and her MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University. She has spent one-year stints living and working in Syria and Singapore. She is currently focusing on the impact of the economic downturn on Ohioans. She blogs at http://ranakhoury.com. Follow her on Twitter @rbkhoury.