President Joe Biden has issued some major economic sanctions against Russia in the midst of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. These measures have largely been supported by the public, both in America and across the world, as strong displays of condemnation, without taking the next dire step. The question arises everyday then: will such a step be taken? If we consider the trajectory of America’s recent interventionist past, I would say it’s unlikely. (Of course, such postulation may be emboldening Putin so there’s a caveat to consider there.)
Anyways, to take the first view, let’s look back at Syria in 2013. Obama was concerned that if the US didn’t intervene, it would undercut the severity of chemical weapons’ usage there. Rather than go in all-guns blazing like his predecessor had with Iraq though, he instead went to the Capitol to seek approval. It was determined America wouldn’t intervene. Years later, a divide remains over whether they should have with a Guardian piece in 2018 entitled “The Epic Failure Of Our Age: How The West Let Down Syria”. I mention this, not to weigh in on any specific view, but to show that it’s not always clear-cut when, where, and why America should intervene.
Had Syria’s crisis come ten or twenty years before, America may very well have sought a different approach. As it happened, George W. Bush had led the nation into two costly wars in 2002-3 with Afghanistan and Iraq. We know all about how those went but it’s interesting to consider that at the beginning, support for the Afghanistan War was close to unanimous (90% according to Gallup). Iraq wasn’t ever quite as popular but it got a whole lot less so in the following years. But what if it hadn’t gone so wrong? Yes, I understand and completely agree that the invasion of Iraq was wrong from the get-go but in the eyes of the American public, what if there had been less casualties and more success associated with it? Like with the Gulf War a decade before?
George H.W. Bush sent the military in to liberate Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion. It was a quick, bold, and decisive victory that skyrocketed his approval ratings to 90%. The mission was complete but a lot of his supporters felt he should have gone further (into Iraq) and removed the problem of Saddam Hussein there and then. He declined, though years later (under the auspices of the War on Terror), his son determined America could not hold its head high while Saddam continued to violate international laws (and maybe have nuclear weapons???) Perhaps, an invasion in the early 90s would have gone just as poorly, even with the senior Bush proving a formidable foreign policy strategist. Indeed, his interventions in Panama and Somalia (while contested and dubious to many) were well planned out and successful. Well…
With regards Somalia (which began just after Bush had lost election), the people were initially thankful for his swift intervention. His record would then turn out positively when Bill Clinton took over and Somalia descended into chaos (with Black Hawk Down and more). Bush didn’t have to deal with the eventualities such interventions can bring, where Clinton was faced with an uphill battle he hadn’t even sought. The rest of his presidency would be tested on the question of when American intervention should and shouldn’t occur with critics (and himself, later on) citing a late entry to Rwanda and Bosnia as unfortunate, if not shameful, chapters in history.
In 1996, Eric Carson wrote a piece for the Rand Organisation entitled “Public Support For US Military Operations” exploring the factors that restrained presidents, in this sphere. Having come out of the Cold War just a few years ago, America had entered a “more confusing world” where the objective wasn’t always clear as had been with something like World War 2 (where people acknowledged the gravity of the situation). Further to that, political divisions or disagreements were having a knock-on effect on public perception. To bring this back to the present, we can see the potential of this political divide crinkling American support for a “next step” as many Republicans weren’t long ago flaunting a “rather be Russian than Democrat” motto.
Public support is essential when a president has a paper-thin political majority or faces contentions. This is another reason why I feel a strong intervention from the US is less likely today than it was years ago. After 9/11, George W. Bush had the nation’s support, even if he would quickly squander it. Back in World War 2, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a president in his third term. Even though Truman’s reputation would for years be bashed by the Korean War, there was still general support for a policy of Communist Containment.
Vietnam, the follow-up to Korea, truly took on its perception as an abject failure when the public started seeing what was going on through the medium of television. With public marches and demonstrations, bolstered by the counter-cultural movement, a new picture of American interventionism and soldiers themselves (quite harshly) was ingrained in the public’s psyche. What if Vietnam had happened ten years before, however? Well, as already mentioned, Korea was a contentious affair, though the South remained free of Russian influence but it is reasonable to assert it wouldn’t have been as unpopular or ended in quite the fashion it had, heavily influencing an election cycle.
Is it bleak to conclude that Americans will support American intervention then only if success is assured? It seems to be the case though such luxuries are never realistically afforded them. Popular support, as a result of today’s media, rancour in politics, and recent dubious interventions, has become nigh-on impossible. The best a president can do, in this age, is justify the chances of success should an intervention occur, answer how the nation is a threat to US interest, exert all means of diplomacy, and run the usual course of air strikes. Though as much as history has taught us how any conflict resolves in the public’s imagination, it is also worth remembering how easily people forget history. In a 2019, YouGov poll, the people were vary much split on whether the Gulf War was justified, for example. So as an addendum, one must note that we can’t even assume a clear or factual basis for public perception when such crises arise.