Ahead of President Obama’s speech tonight, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a clear majority of the American public support military action against ISIS. Let us hope that conservatives, progressives, and those supportive of such military action don’t cite these poll numbers to justify their position.
One of the more self-defeating political phenomena of recent decades is the tendency of presidents to base American national-security policy on polls, as they might any other issue. In this case, the public might be right about the need to defeat an organization which has sworn to defeat us, but to make the polls any part of a reason to conduct military action simply justifies their use—for better or worse—in the future. The public elects its president in part because of their trust that he will make the right call about national security. This was why Hillary Clinton’s campaign released its “3 a.m. phone call” commercial. But while military strategies play out in months or years, the American public can be fickle. Public opinion is too often subject to the whims of the media. It is a betrayal of our men and women in uniform to waffle constantly on their mission once they are in harm’s way. When it comes to ISIS, no politician should read polls and gleefully declare, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [in funding for U.S. forces in Iraq] before I voted against it.”
Real leadership requires making tough calls about national security regardless of the poll of the day. Any visitor to Harry S. Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West, Florida, has seen its collection of political cartoons criticizing Truman’s management of the war and his supposedly aimless objectives. Thankfully, Truman ignored the public’s turn, continued the U.S. commitment, and secured the Republic of Korea. The media lambasted Ronald Reagan for pursuing “Star Wars” and deploying intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe. But Reagan had a strategic vision and shrugged off his detractors. When George W. Bush announced the surge, polls showed a majority of Americans opposing Bush’s plan to augment the troop presence in Iraq. Bush ignored his detractors and did what he thought was best given the importance he placed on stabilizing Iraq.
Sometimes public-opinion polling will support decisive, military action and sometimes it won’t. But to justify any action with a poll simply gives credence to those who would undercut that action later with similar polls. National security shouldn’t be a political football.