Eau Claire, WI (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – United States presidents have repeatedly waged wars with tacit congressional approval and distorted narratives at the expense of citizens’ political participation in the political process and to the detriment of their first amendment rights. the seemingly popular support for such interventions is constructed and deprives millions of citizens of critical facts and information pertinent to making sound judgments about the country’s use of coercive actions, including overt military interventions. The foreign policy establishment’s false narratives legitimize U.S. military interventions and suffocate the freedom of speech of millions of citizens through a disconnect between the governed and the governors, albeit in no apparent violation of the First Amendment.
The country has been engaged in numerous foreign direct and indirect conflicts and wars since the end of WWII, and especially since the end of the cold war. Yet, the United States’ democratic political system and the guaranteed constitutional rights of the people have not translated into engaging the public in a constructive debate over and the conduct of US military interventions abroad. The First Amendment to the US Constitution partly proclaims that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. The U.S. Supreme Court further ruled on March 3, 1919, that the freedom of speech protection afforded in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment could be restricted if the words spoken or printed represented to society a clear and present danger. Despite this supposed protection, dissident narratives are often sidelined by government spokespersons and a sycophantic corporate news establishment. Public opinion seems unable to have a serious impact on foreign policy in either opposition to or in support of peaceful settlement of conflict with other states.
Academic research findings demonstrate the American public is overall less interested in foreign policy unless it has an immediate impact on people’s livelihoods. The United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars in its annual national defense budgets, and its military interventions abroad have a drastic impact on people’s lives both here in the homeland and in the targeted countries. Public opinion changes as the extent and the duration of US involvement and the home-front political climate change. Public opinion surveys show support for continued engagement after the initial support, but it declines as military intervention drags on. A decline in public opinion support occurs as the public comes to question the human and financial cost and wisdom of military operations abroad. A ‘Democratic-Republican’ divide over US involvement in Ukraine after prolonged failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria reflects the current political divide in America.
A 2017 CATO study classifies American public opinion on foreign intervention into ‘restraint, ‘interventionist,’ and ‘in-between’ categories. The “restraint constituency” which cuts across party lines and represents roughly 37 percent of the public stands in contrast with an “interventionist constituency,” which only represents about a quarter of the public and supports much more aggressive efforts to promote American interests abroad. Since neither constituency’s core followers represent a majority, the deciding voice between intervention and restraint in foreign policy debates belongs to the 40 percent of the public that falls somewhere between the two camps. Public opinion can shift in either direction, depending on the extent of public awareness and engagement.
This article contends that a contributing factor in the United States’ bellicose foreign policy is the absence of input into the foreign policy decision-making process by an informed public opinion. The public’s sentiments on war and peace remain vastly reactive and susceptible to opinion shapers and influencers. In 2010, a poll found that 70 percent of Americans believed Iran already had nukes (the CIA assesses that it does not even have a nuclear weapons program, only a civilian enrichment capability). In 2021, 60 percent still believed in the existence of Iranian nukes, with another 23 percent of Americans claiming that they did not know. Only about half of the respondents in the 2021 poll even knew that Israel had nuclear weapons. “In other words, more than four-fifths of the public [did] not know the correct answer to a simple question about a matter of fact on one of the most high-profile foreign policy issues of the last 15 years.” Foreign policy commentator Daniel Larison wrote in 2021, “That is what decades of misinformation and propaganda will get you.”
The demonization of the enemy is a proven strategy used to galvanize public opinion in support of policy. British journalist Louis Allday (Ebb Magazine, 3/15/22), compiled a list of instances where Western journalists and officials have compared foreign leaders to Hitler—with Hitler sometimes coming off better in the comparison. Hitler-like leaders include Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milošević, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and even Cuba’s Fidel Castro. As Farhang Jahanpour argues, there is indeed a long history of demonization of Middle Eastern leaders, before invasion and regime change.
The George H. W. Bush administration claimed its 1991 military campaign against Iraq was in place to protect Saudi Arabia, and not attack Iraq. The administration claimed that Iraq had over 250,000 troops in Kuwait ready to attack the Saudis. The reporting by the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, however, showed there was only a force of about 20% that size in the country. The US-led, UNSC-sanctioned military operation to push Iraqi troops out of Kuwait instead involved the extensive bombing of Iraq itself, destroying key public health infrastructure, the and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. The crippling of water purification plants led to excess infant mortality. Little thought was apparently given by Washington to how it would extricate itself from the turbulent Gulf in the aftermath. The subsequent twelve years of UN and US sanctions had disastrous consequences for the Iraqi civilian population. Having been drawn into a prolonged military presence in Saudi Arabia, the site of the two holiest Islamic shrines, the United States became a target of increased acts of terrorism on the part of Muslim radicals.
The US public was not informed that the US campaign in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks would result in a twenty-year occupation of that country that would leave thousands of innocent civilians dead and hundreds of billions spent on high-powered bombing runs that proved impotent in defeating the Taliban. Would a reasoned public debate on ways of responding to the small terrorist group, al-Qaeda, that did not involve attempting to rule a country of 34 million for two decades have forestalled the hasty errors of the Bush administration?
The invasion of Iraq came in 2003, resulting in more than 210,000 Iraqi civilians and 4,500 US soldiers killed, and chaos and instability gripping the whole region. The claim that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction or had ties with al-Qaeda proved baseless propaganda. American public was misled throughout the campaign to legitimize the invasion. The security concerns engendered by the 9/11 attacks in 2001 contributed to decision to go to war, though in later years the Bush administration attempted to cover up this exercise in naked aggression as a project of democratization. The project failed.
The strategic mistake of going to war with Iraq resulted from President George W. Bush’s miscalculation that the transition to a US-dominated stability in the aftermath of the invasion would be relatively easy. The neoconservative vision failed to take account of Iraqi culture and society and underestimated the influence of Iran. The war in Iraq drew resources away from the US attempt to repress radical Sunni fundamentalism. Iraq’s Shi’a domination and Iran’s rising power have given Iran an edge in Iraq. On the 20th anniversary of the US- and British-led invasion of Iraq, the New York Times continued to dedicate itself to a waffling narrative, one that writes out most of history and opts for a message of “it’s complicated” to discuss the disaster it can’t admit that it helped create.
In 2023, the public has come weary of American adventurism abroad in the name of democracy promotion and/or humanitarianism. 2023 survey results defy the liberal, neoconservative narratives in justification of US military interventionism in the name of American unilateralism and “democracy promotion.” The survey shows the public’s strong desire to avoid military intervention in the name of democracy. When asked to name the top five most important foreign policy issues facing the United States, terrorism was first with 49% mentioning the issue. (This was despite no serious attacks on the homeland since September 2001!) The same survey finds upholding democracy globally was mentioned only 14% of the time in prioritizing public opinion interest in intervention, favoring multilateralism and less US intervention. On the question of multilateralism or stability versus unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy, almost 70% favor multilateralism or stability. Very few, only 17% wanted a unilateral approach.
Why does the American public continuously support US foreign military interventions while remaining ignorant of or disinterested in foreign relations, and despite the values and principles enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution? Freedom of speech and expression implies access to facts and awareness in making sound judgments. Conversely, constructed narratives based on selective, half-truths and partisan journalism mean narrow views and self-censorship, resulting in false conclusions. The American public is being failed by its smug and manipulative foreign policy elites and by news corporations that act as their echo chamber.
One survey finds that Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are more knowledgeable than others. We recognize that public interest in and knowledge of foreign affairs varies according to the level of education, gender, age, party affiliation, and ideology. Still, viewed in its entirety, American public opinion matters and helps justify continuous US military intervention abroad. The role of public opinion makers, including the media, in the formation of public opinion is antithetical to democracy and the 1st amendment rights of informed citizenry enshrined in the US Constitution.
Ali Abootalebi is Professor of Middle Eastern and Global Politics in the Department of Political Science, the University of Wisconsin, UWEC. He is the author of Islam and democracy: State-Society Relations in Developing Countries, 1980-1994 (Garland, 2000), coauthored with Stephen Hill, Introduction to World Politics: Prospects and Challenges for the United States, 2nd ed. (Kendall Hunt, 2018), edited, Global Politics Reader: Themes, Actors, and Issues (Cognella Publishing, 2019), and numerous articles on Iran, Arab Politics, Civil Society and Democracy and U.S. foreign policy.