A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.
It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.
The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”
The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.
The shift away from wars that are winding down anyway is natural, but the focus on Ukraine should be more than a space-filler or the crisis flavor of the week. Indeed, as the right debates the future of conservative foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan, Ukraine (and situations like it) represents an integral part that debate. That fact was not lost on Marco Rubio, considered a 2016 contender, who put out a statement today standing with the Ukrainian opposition and urging sanctions on those involved in government-sponsored violence.
But it would be a shame if the debate on the right ends there. These sorts of events are likely to intrude on a presidential election. That happened in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. John McCain, an experienced foreign-policy candidate with a particular distaste for Vladimir Putin, responded forcefully. Barack Obama, woefully inexperienced and confused by the issue, put out a bland statement urging restraint on both sides. Within a couple of days, Obama had changed his mind and began echoing McCain. The Russia-Georgia war, and the fraught history of the post-Soviet sphere, intruded on the campaign and Obama was completely unprepared.
But it’s not just the possibility of such violent flare-ups surprising the candidates while on the campaign trail. Ukraine represents the kind of conflict that is complicated and nuanced and does not involve an American military component. The Obama administration’s spectacular diplomatic failures should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of clinging to preconceived notions as a substitute for genuine curiosity about the world.
And how conservatives in general view such crises is probably as important now as it’s ever been. At no previous time have the Republican Party’s candidates been so responsive to the grassroots. (The party’s base might think those candidates are still not responsive enough, but that’s a different story.) Part of this has to do with the effect of social media and the breakdown of the GOP’s next-in-linism. Over at the Federalist, Ben Domenech gets at this point with regard to Rand Paul’s prospective candidacy:
Paul can control that aspect of how he presents himself. What he cannot control is the chaos of world events, which may in the intervening time send the Republican Party’s Jacksonians back to their traditional ways. Today protesters are filling the streets in Venezuela; the Iran talks are struggling; the administration’s Syria strategy is proving the clusterfail we all expected; Japan is brandishing the sword; the North Korean human rights debacle is well in evidence; and Ukraine is literally on fire. How the Republican Party’s base reacts to this instability, and to Obama’s meandering foreign policy, remains an open question.
Look how many of those subjects have almost nothing to do with war-weariness or domestic surveillance–the two issues on which Paul leads and which have dominated the foreign-policy conversation. They have to do with building alliances, sending messages, choosing sides, standing consistently on principle, practicing attentive diplomacy, and understanding America’s adversaries.
Essentially, they require a coherent worldview that is absent from the current Democratic administration and which will be applied to a world different enough from the one confronted by the last Republican White House. If conservatives are prepared to have that conversation even while ObamaCare remains a potent issue and the economy trudges along, it will be an illuminating presidential election. If not, it will be a missed opportunity.