Foreign Policy by Poll

Isolationism has been an American tendency since George Washington's farewell address in September of 1796. But to give in to that tendency in 1993 would be a grave mistake.

American public opinion has of late turned firmly against U.S. involvement in foreign countries. The recent trend toward isolationism stems from what Americans perceive to be the Clinton Administration's habit of waffling and its mishandling of the apparently intractable situations in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti. We shouldn't be sending our boys in harm's way unless our interests are at stake, the majority of the public screams in poll after poll.

On October 7, a Time/CNN poll showed that 60 percent of Americans opposed U.S. presence in Somalia. In the same poll, Clinton's approval rating on foreign policy was a paltry 37 percent. But when former President Bush sent the first American troops to Somalia late last year, few had qualms about our lack of selfinterest in the war. Ten months ago, a poll showed that 79 percent of Americans favored U.S. involvement.

This raises two questions. First, if our national interest is not at stake in a conflict, under what circumstances should we intervene? Second, if national interest is the criterion for U.S. troop deployment, what defines that interest?

From the standpoint of our leaders, the first question is the most difficult to answer, primarily because of the vagaries of public opinion. If our leadership seems to be waffling, it is because public opinion marches to the beat of several different drummers, often all at once.

Vital national interests are not threatened by the crises in Somalia and Haiti. But that didn't stop American public opinion from influencing the decisions to get involved. And now that the risks of humanitarian intervention are becoming apparent, the public blames the Clinton Administration for trying to "do the right thing."

Americans were rightly outraged at the sight of Somalian thugs waylaying humanitarian aid. But it should have been obvious from the start that to effectively "restore hope" would require the disarming of the Somalian warlords, as U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had originally requested.

And a major reason for Clinton's promise to restore democracy in Haiti is the intensely negative reaction that most Americans direct toward immigration--and especially toward the huddled masses of Haitian refugees. Perhaps the most conspicuous sign of the influence public opinion wielded was the presence of reporters and camera operators at the first landing of Navy SEALs on the Somali shore. Either the brass or the Bush Administration--it's still not clear which--must have considered good p.r. as important as the integrity of the operation.

While it is quick to call on our leaders to do something to help, public opinion is even more adamant about the virtual absence of American casualties. Congress was silent about American deaths in Somalia until angry constituents with conveniently short memories flooded Capitol Hill with letters and phone calls.

Now, Congress greets any hint of escalating U.S. involvement in humanitarian intervention with vociferous disapproval. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin has begun to second-guess himself. When Americans began calling on Clinton to bring the boys back home, Aspin decided not to grant his military commander's request for more tanks in Somalia. His decision was not publicized then, but imagine the uproar had he announced that he would send in additional tanks. Ironically, those tanks could have saved the lives of the American soldiers killed by Aidid's men on October 3.

If the American public wants to pursue humanitarian intervention, it must be fully prepared to accept the consequences (read: American casualties).

It is preposterous to think that Clinton alone should bear the blame for America's squeamishness. If the president deserves blame for anything, it's for letting public opinion bully him into actions the public would later regret. Policymakers should take the polls into account, but recently the American public has not proven itself an able advisor.

The real tragedy, however, would be if the Clinton Administration became so hamstrung by public opinion that it hesitated to involve the U.S. in other matters that actually did have grave consequences for vital American interests.

This brings us to the second question: Just what constitutes our "interest?" The most apparent areas of concern are nuclear and conventional arms proliferation and instability in crucial areas like the Middle East.

We still live in a nuclear world, in which formerly well-behaved superpower cronies are now grasping for military might; Iraq, China, and North Korea are but a few of the many regimes that seek nuclear weapons. The fall of communism has given way to the rise of nationalist totalitarianism, which can be much more nasty, even if it doesn't threaten immediate apocalypse.