Sen. Richard Lugar, the former senator from Indiana, points to a number in the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll as evidence of a stunning shift in American public opinion.
Just one year ago, only 28% of Americans said they felt “less safe” than they did before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Today, that number has exploded almost 20 points, and a plurality of Americans — 47% — now feel “less safe.”
“Americans,” said Lugar, who was the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 12 years, “have been shocked into action.”
When President Barack Obama lays out his strategy to confront the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) Wednesday night, he will be talking to an American public that is significantly more hawkish than at any time during his tenure in office.
It’s been brought on by ISIS’ brutal executions of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, a story that has awoken the American public like no story in the past five years.
Foreign policy hawks think they have been proven right by the alarming rise of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, as well as seemingly never-ending and continually sprouting turmoil across the world. And they believe there will be significant ramifications for the last two years of the Obama administration and for the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Obama speaks very little about the war in Afghanistan, the chaos in Syria and then in Iraq, the deterioration of Libya, the threat from China or the aggression of Russia,” Michael Goldfarb, the founder of the conservative site the Free Beacon, told Business Insider.
“I always assumed the indifference of the public was at least in part a reflection of the indifference of the President. But now the public and the president are being mugged by reality — and reality is still neoconservative.”
The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and others contain a plethora of evidence suggesting Americans are more inclined to support U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts. Just five months ago, only 19% of Americans said the U.S. should become “more active” in world affairs, compared with 47% who said the country should be “less active.” Those numbers have shifted, respectively, to 27% and 40%.
More narrowly, 61% of poll respondents said it was in the “national interest” to take military action against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. A plurality — 40% — of those respondents said the military action should be limited to U.S. airstrikes alone. But 34% also said combat troops should be involved, a remarkable shift for a country that first elected Obama in large part because of his promises to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Americans are more aware of the executions of Foley and Sotloff than any other news event in the past five years. An astounding 94% of poll respondents said they were at least somewhat aware of the stories.
“The Foley and Sotloff executions changed everything,” Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, told Business Insider.
“There’s a deep sense of honour embedded in American political consciousness, and the in-your-face, come-and-get-us manner in which they were killed makes it irresistible to want to pound them hard. It’s what Walter Russell Mead calls the ‘Jacksonian’ [Andrew Jackson] impulse in U.S. politics, and the Scotch-Irish sense of punching back 10 times harder than the guy who punches you.”
The shifting attitude of the American public — along with the advocated need to take action to the growing threat ISIS poses — has the potential to shift the last two years of a president who came into his second term promising an active domestic agenda.
It also has the potential to roil the conversation ahead of 2016 — especially within the Republican Party. The changing landscape will be a significant challenge for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), largely viewed as a potential frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
Paul has seen his foreign-policy vision thrown into question as the U.S. prepares to confront ISIS. He has struggled to explain what critics charge is a blatant flip-flop to a more hawkish stance in a time of convenience.
Two weeks ago, he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that a more realist U.S. foreign policy would lead to the realisation “there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe.” About one week later, Paul made clear he was ready for war, saying he would articulate a strategy and seek congressional authorization if he were president.
“The prohibitive GOP frontrunner three months ago is now unelectable according to party mandarins,” Urbahn said. “It’s amazing how the conventional wisdom shifts on a dime. Both positions are BS. [But] it’s true, he has a much harder path now. He’s also had to make some awkward contortions on ISIL now that opinion has shifted toward doing something.”
Added Golfarb: “I always assumed the Republican Party was still hawkish and certainly more hawkish than it appeared for a hot minute there. This will be a big challenge for Rand, but he is a true believer and I’m sure he will do his best to make the case for less intervention and peace through strength and deterrence. Without some dramatic reversal or divine intervention though, I suspect the 2016 race will play out as it traditionally has, with a Republican candidate who is far more hawkish than his Democratic opponent.”
Meanwhile, a Republican candidate who articulates a clear vision of a foreign policy that includes the right balance will be rewarded by an increasingly hawkish Republican constituency in particular.
According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday, 83% of Republicans support airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq (compared with 71% of adults overall). Moreover, 74% of Republicans (compared with 65% of all adults) support expanding those strikes into Syria. And 66% of Republicans (58% of adults overall) support arming the Kurdish pesh merga forces battling ISIS on the ground in Iraq.
“Foreign policy will rise in prominence as a campaign issue and candidates who can talk credibly and comfortably about international affairs will be rewarded with support,” Noah Pollak, the director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, told Business Insider.
“In the same way, candidates who have expressed trendy ideas about America’s role in the world will find themselves on the defensive as they are constantly asked to explain their past statements in light of current events.”
Two candidates whose names came up repeatedly as potential Republicans who could take on the mantle of a “Reagan-esque” foreign policy were Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida). Rubio suggested Sunday that other Republicans were becoming aware of the threat posed by ISIS “weeks later” than him. Cruz, meanwhile, has taken a leading role by sponsoring a bill to strip the citizenship of Americans who have traveled to fight with ISIS.
Other potential Republican candidates, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have worked to draw early contrasts with the more isolationist wing of Paul. But they have largely strayed away from broad articulations of their foreign policies.
Lugar, the former senator who now is president of the non-profit Lugar Center, expects that all to change in the next year.
“Within the Republican Party, the view is growing rapidly that there must be more assertion of American power,” Lugar told Business Insider. “Which candidate will step up and articulate that remains to be seen. But it will happen.”
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