War-Weariness in the United States?

Commentary No. 304, May 1, 2011

The United States is currently engaged in three wars in the Middle East – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. The United States has bases all around the world, in more than 150 countries. It has tense relations currently with North Korea and Iran, and has never ruled out military action.

The war in Afghanistan, when it began in 2002, had very strong support from U.S. public opinion, and indeed a great deal of support in other countries. The war in Iraq had almost as much support from U.S. public opinion when it began in 2003, but a lot less support in other countries. Now the United States is halfway into Libya. Less than half the U.S. public is supportive, and there is very much opposition in the rest of the world.

The most recent polls in the United States show opposition not only to the Libyan operation but now to remaining in Afghanistan as well. Pollsters are talking of “war-weariness,” as well they might, since it is hard to argue that the United States has been victorious in any of these conflicts.

The Libyan conflict is heading toward a long morass. In Afghanistan, everyone is trying to figure out a political solution, which would have to involve the Taliban joining the government, and perhaps even in a short time coming to full power. In Iraq, the United States is scheduled to withdraw its troops on December 31. It has offered to leave 20,000 troops there longer, provided the Iraqi government requests it, and does this very soon. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might be tempted but the Sadrists have told him that, if he does this, they will withdraw their support and his government would fall.

The most interesting thing, however, is what is likely to occur in the next year in U.S. internal politics, as it moves forward to a presidential election. Since 1945, the Republican Party has campaigned as the party that strongly supports the military and has accused the Democratic Party of being soft. The Democrats have always reacted by seeking to prove that they were not soft, and in practice there has not been too much difference in the actual policies that were pursued, whichever party held the office of president. Indeed, the biggest wars – Korea and Vietnam – were both started under Democratic presidents.

The Democratic Party has always had a group, considered its left wing, that have been critical of these wars, and this group continues to exist and to protest. But, among elected politicians, these Democrats have always been a minority, one that was largely ignored.

The Republican Party was more united around a program of steady support for the military and for the wars. There were rare Republican politicians who had a different view. They were drawn from the libertarian wing of the party, and the most notable person who incarnated this view was Rep. Ron Paul of Arizona. He was also one of the few politicians who thought the unlimited U.S. support for Israel was a bad idea.

At the moment, here is where we stand on the race for the presidency. Barack Obama will be the Democratic candidate. He is unchallenged within the party. The Republican picture is quite the opposite. There are ten to twelve candidates for the nomination, and not one of them is a clear favorite. The party race is wide open.

What does that mean for foreign policy? Ron Paul is seeking the nomination. In 2008, he had almost no support at all. Now he is doing much better in the campaigning. This is in part because of his strong positions on fiscal policies, but his positions on the war are attracting attention. In addition, a new candidate has entered the ring. He is Gary Johnson, former Republican Governor of New Mexico. Also a libertarian, he is even stronger on the war issues than Paul. Johnson calls for total and immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

Given the wide spread of support for the various potential candidates, there are undoubtedly going to be television programs where all the Republican candidates will speak and debate. If Johnson makes the war issue his big campaign argument, this ensures that all the Republican candidates will have to address it.

Once that happens, we will discover that the so-called Tea Party Republicans are deeply split on the war involvements. Suddenly, the whole of the United States will be debating this issue. Barack Obama will find that the centrist position he has been trying to maintain has suddenly moved leftwards. In order to remain a centrist, he too will have to move left.

This will be a major turning-point in U.S. politics. The idea that the troops should come home will become a serious possibility. Some will fume with anger because the United States will thus be exhibiting weakness. And in some ways this will be true. It is part of U.S. decline. What it will remind U.S. politicians, however, is that fighting wars requires serious support in public opinion. And in this combination of geopolitical and economic pressures that everyone is feeling, war-weariness is a very serious factor from here on in.