Kagan’s False Paradox and the Pro-War Media’s Confirmation Bias


What Americans really want in a foreign policy” is a good choice of title, when writing an op-ed that effectively denies that the majority of the US public is against more wars and more interventions. If your starting point is an absolute and essentialist one, then you cannot allow deviation from war as the primary means of conducting foreign policy, the unquestioned belief in “American exceptionalism,” and the deep desire for US dominance in all affairs around the world. So when presented with evidence that contradicts your point of view, evidence that suggests that the interventionists are isolated even in their home country (there’s a nice twist on “isolationism”), then the work of confirmatory bias and belief perseverance takes over. You then start to put words into people’s mouths, to have them say what you imagine they really think, which “coincidentally” also happens to be what you really want to hear.

What Doyle McManus (the author of the op-ed linked to above) thus needs to do is to start with a false premise:

“that his [Obama’s] aversion to all forms of military intervention, even indirect ones, has emboldened malefactors like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar Assad to test the limits. That’s a legitimate worry, and much of the public appears to share it, according to recent public opinion polls.”

How has Obama been averse to all forms of military intervention when he initiated the war against Libya, and has simultaneously pursued warfare in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Afghanistan all during his terms in office, even escalating the war in Afghanistan and increasing spending on war that exceeded even George W. Bush’s? As for the “legitimate worry” that Obama’s imagined anti-war stance has “emboldened Putin,” and that “much of the public appears to share” that worry–this is entirely imagined. It’s a fiction. McManus points to no evidence of any sort that indicates a “worry” by “much of the public” that Obama has emboldened Putin. In fact, the only evidence presented in this piece is, again, that most Americans do not want more wars and that they apparently do not think that Obama is doing well in delivering on that wish.

McManus, with the help of the confirmatory bias of erstwhile interventionist, Robert Kagan (whom McManus calls a “scholar”), writes the following:

It’s true that after Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have no appetite for more military adventures. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 52% said the United States should “mind its own business” overseas, the highest percentage to endorse that proposition since the question was first asked in 1964.

But as foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan noted recently, there’s a paradox in those polls: The same public that wants to stay out of foreign entanglements also thinks the president isn’t doing a very good job on international affairs. A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that only 38% of those surveyed approved of Obama’s handling of foreign policy; that was fewer than approved of his handling of the economy.

Why the apparent contradiction?

Kagan suggests that Americans are psychologically conflicted. “They may want a narrowly self-interested American policy,” he wrote. “But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to [Obama] for giving them what they want.”

Where is the apparent contradiction? Most Americans want to be engaged in no more foreign interventions, and they think Obama is doing a poor job. Why is that a contradiction? It can only be one if you take Obama at face value when he suddenly promotes himself as the diplomatic peace-maker that he has not been, and then expect that most Americans also take Obama at face value. It requires that you deny the many cases where Obama was chomping at the bit for war–against Libya, against Syria, or more war in Afghanistan–and most Americans, or a plurality, wanted nothing of it. Obama was the interventionist going against their wishes, hence he was doing a bad job. Obama took steps that would deepen US intervention in Syria, based on an all-too-familiar line about weapons of mass destruction, when most Americans wanted to stay out. If Obama is not doing a good job, it’s that he is not doing a good job of being an anti-interventionist. And if “Putin is emboldened” it is happening precisely as the US ratchets up the aggressive rhetoric and every day launches new threats and more NATO military manoeuvres.

Here are just some of the many instances where US public opinion was set against Obama’s deepened interventions abroad, that Kagan and McManus ignore:

March 10, 2011, Few Americans Endorse a Regime Change Operation in Libya: The prospect of a military intervention to topple the Libyan regime is endorsed at this time by fewer than one-in-ten Americans, a new Vision Critical / Angus Reid poll has found.

February 14, 2012, CNN Poll: Most Americans see no U.S. obligation in Syria: Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and anti-government groups, according to a new national survey.

February 25, 2013, Americans Would Rather Cut Military Spending Than Social Security And Medicare: A solid 58 percent of respondents favored cutting America’s debt over maintaining current spending levels on domestic and military programs. Only 28 percent of respondents were in favor of the current spending levels.

May 2, 2013, Americans want U.S. to keep out of Syria conflict: poll: Most Americans do not want the United States to intervene in Syria’s civil war even if the government there uses chemical weapons, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Wednesday, in a clear message to the White House as it considers how to respond to the worsening crisis. Only 10 percent of those surveyed in the online poll said the United States should become involved in the fighting. Sixty-one percent opposed getting involved.

August 24, 2013, As Syria war escalates, Americans cool to U.S. intervention: Reuters/Ipsos poll: About 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war, while just 9 percent thought President Barack Obama should act.

August 26, 2013, Less popular than Nixon during Watergate: Our potential Syria intervention!–just 9 percent of Americans support military action. That makes the intervention less popular than communism, BP during the Gulf oil spill, less popular than Richard Nixon during Watergate, less popular than Paris — and even less popular than Congress, that most hated of American institutions. (Comparing polls like this is not really “scientific,” but you get the general idea.) And yet it looks like the U.S. is hurtling toward intervention…

August 26, 2013, Barack Obama’s Syria challenge: A war-weary public: Looking back at the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, where dictator Muammar Gadhafi was removed from power, only 39 percent of Americans told Gallup in March of that year that the United States should play a leading or major role in the action there. Fifty-eight percent said it should play a minor role or disengage entirely. By June 2011, a CBS poll found that 30 percent of Americans thought the United States was “doing the right thing” in Libya, while 59 percent said America shouldn’t be involved there.

August 30, 2013, Poll: Congress must OK Syria attack: Half of Americans say they oppose taking military action in Syria and nearly eight-in-10 think the president should get congressional authorization before using force, according to a new poll out Friday.

December 30, 2013, Support for Afghanistan War Hits New Low: A mere 17% of Americans support the war in Afghanistan, according to a new poll, making it by one measure the most unpopular war in U.S. history. The new low in support, in a CNN poll out Monday, comes after 52% of Americans supported the war in a 2008 CNN poll, and just 46% opposed it. By 2013, opposition had mushroomed to 82%, according to the poll.

February 19, 2014, More Americans think war in Afghanistan was a mistake: poll: A new Gallup polls found that for the first time, Americans think the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake, with 49% holding that belief compared to 48% who say the conflict should have occurred. The poll has been conducted since the November 2001 invasion, reaching a peak of 93% of Americans supporting the effort in January 2002.

April 30, 2014, Plurality of Americans Want to See Country Less Involved in World Affairs: According to a the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll 47 percent of Americans want to see the United States become less active in world affairs. Another 30 percent want our foreign affair activities to remain at their current level and just 19 percent want to see the country become more active in world affairs.

Likewise, the growing popularity of an anti-interventionist has to be demolished by the majority of the privately-owned media that are pro-war. While there is little that I approve of Rand Paul’s politics overall, I am not unfamiliar with the media’s monopolistic stranglehold on public discourse over the past 13 years, where anti-war perspectives, let alone outright anti-imperialist ones, were either severely marginalized or excluded outright. That was even the case when such perspectives were far more in tune with the majority of public opinion, than any McManus or Kagan ever were. This is the real “media crackdown” that we live with every day in North America, with all of its phony concerns and false paradoxes that offer no real solutions to the meaningful problems that most citizens face. As for the rest of the world–the largest number of the 67,806 respondents from 65 countries polled by Win/Gallup, considered the US to be the number one “greatest threat to peace in the world today” (North American media monopolies should have been listed as number two). Perhaps Kagan and McManus would conclude that’s because the US has not done enough to threaten world peace?