Domestic Challenges to US Primacy?

This is the third in a series of posts from a recent research symposium organised by Dr Ellen Hallams on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges.’ In this piece, Dr David Houghton discusses the role of domestic factors in shaping current and future US foreign policy.


Domestic impediments to US executive action have seemingly mounted in recent years. Public opinion – especially the ‘war weariness’ of the American public after Iraq and Afghanistan – has increasingly constrained executive branch adventurism, making it more and more difficult to commit military troops overseas and for the United States to play an international role generally. At the same time, congressional challenges to executive primacy – most notably, the attempt by Republican Senators in 2015 to take control of foreign policy towards Iran and other states – are making it harder for the Commander-in-Chief to forge a path independent of the legislature. Interest groups like the increasingly conservative Israel lobby, meanwhile, have sought to prevent the Obama administration from forging an independent approach to US foreign policy. Horrendous media images of the civil war in Syria, meanwhile, appear to be pulling Obama inexorably into some kind of ‘CNN Effect’.

Somewhat paradoxically, though, Barack Obama has been ‘freer’ from most of these constraints in foreign policy than any president in recent memory, mostly because the very limited agenda he is pursuing in this arena already meshes with inward-looking US public opinion. Some suggest that Obama is nothing more than an elaborate pragmatist. But as the political scientist Colin Dueck has noted, Obama does have an overall strategy. The President has been rather unadventurous – especially when compared to his predecessor – and has sought to address America’s own internal problems rather than external issues. Obama has said that he wants to focus on “nation building here at home”. Heavily influenced by foreign policy realism, his strategy has been one of retrenchment (of pulling back, in other words).

Looking at recent public opinion data, what is most striking is the fact that the retrenchment strategy happens to match US public opinion, which is at its most isolationist since the 1930s. The effect of Iraq and Afghanistan upon ordinary Americans seems to have been directly equivalent to that of Vietnam, or even greater. The proportion of Americans saying in a 2013 Pew Research Center poll that the United States should ‘mind its own business internationally’ rose by just over 20% between 1964 and 1974, about the same as the equivalent rise between 2002 and 2013. The effect seems to have been greater than that which accompanied the end of the Cold War, meanwhile, since the proportion favouring a smaller US role rose by only about 10% between 1989 and 1994. And for the first time in 40 years of polling, a majority of Americans – about 52% to 38% – think that the country should ‘mind its own business’, the most striking finding of all.

What, then, of the much-vaunted Israel and Cuban American ethnic lobbies that supposedly ‘rule the roost’ in American foreign policy? In reality, Obama has regularly flouted the will of both, safe in the knowledge that Jewish voters tend to support him very strongly and that commercial interests have reduced the power of the Cuban lobby. Commentators frequently attribute great electoral power to the latter, based on their concentration in ‘swing states’ like Florida and high degree of organization. But two forces have changed the equation in recent years. First of all, we have seen the emergence of significant commercial interests as a rival or alternative lobby, which see the potential of the island for what it used to be, a grown-up ‘playground’ for Americans abroad. Secondly, younger Cubans are far less likely to take a hard line on the Castro brothers than older ones since they do not remember the Cold War. Today, even a small majority of Cuban Americans favours liberalization. It is no coincidence then that in 2015 diplomatic relations were finally restored between the United States and Cuba, and the US has just re-opened its embassy in Havana for the first time since 1959. Obama has also called for the lifting of the long-established trade embargo and is clearly on a mission to liberalize relations between the United States and Cuba before he leaves office.

Similarly, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) have been virtually ignored in Obama’s rapprochement towards Iran. While the Israeli lobby benefits from even greater electoral advantages and levels of organization than the Cuban American one, fears that the lobby will exert a pernicious influence on policymaking during the Obama years have mostly not been realized. This is because a majority still overwhelmingly supports the president and the Democratic party, while AIPAC and the current Likud administration in Israel have increasingly responded only to conservative Jewish Americans.

The Obama administration announced in 2015 that it has successfully arrived at a nuclear deal with Iran, meanwhile, a move to which both AIPAC and Netanyahu are implacably opposed. Opposition to the deal in Washington has centered on the claim that this is a ‘bad deal’ for the United States, but the real problem is that the deal is so good that it may be too good to be true (it promises to get rid of 98% of Iran’s enriched uranium, for instance). Leaving AIPAC aside, moreover, a clear majority of Jewish Americans – a group with especially high levels of turnout – actually supports the Iran nuclear deal, something which surprises most people. The Senate has recently approved the deal, although Obama indicated that he will go ahead with or without congressional support (which he does not really need).

If public opinion and the lobbies are not able to meaningfully constrain Obama’s hand in foreign policy, the possibility remains that a ‘CNN Effect’ may be pushing him to be far more adventurous than he is. The instantaneous nature of TV and computer images today has sparked a debate in recent years about the supposed ability of news agencies to set the political agenda. Under the Obama administration, it has sometimes been alleged that the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya was the product of a CNN Effect, for instance, and that the weak US response to the Syrian crisis is the result of an absence of video images.

It is not true to allege that there were no images of suffering broadcast on American television, however. In fact, the spread of photographic and video technology made it relatively easy in both cases for Libyans and Syrians to send harrowing images of civilian suffering to the US media outlets. It is also instructive to note that the Obama administration – for good or ill – has not bowed to considerable congressional pressure (especially from Senator John McCain) to intervene in Syria. On the other hand, the real reasons for the difference in response were probably the relative difficulty of the task and available intelligence about the likely consequences. Libya would be ‘easy to do’ and would allow for a quick intervention from the air, based on the notion that a friendly force on the ground could capitalize on Allied control of the air. But who was the friendly force in Syria? Intelligence sources suggested that a moderate or friendly force on the ground either was not present at all, or else had been disillusioned into non-existence by Obama’s own failure to act after he stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the administration.

Obama is not running for elected office again, which gives him a freer hand. However, a future president attached to different priorities – especially one attempting to re-assert American primacy in a more forceful way – might not be so fortunate. It all depends on what you are trying to do, and a neoconservative Republican or liberal internationalist Democrat might find himself (or herself) constrained again.

Image: President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Nov. 23, 2009, via Wikimedia Commons.

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