Kelley Beaucar Vlahos
Tell us, Washington, how do you really feel about American public opinion?
For years now, Beltway establishmentarians have been trying desperately to countermand the idea that they are in fact, elites: out of touch, impervious to what regular Americans want and need, and slaves to conventional foreign policy doctrine and dogma.
But it is wartime again, and that’s when the masks slip. It began with the steady stream of Eliot Cohen and Anne Applebaum columns from the start of the Russian invasion, all demanding that Americans see the war in Ukraine as our fight, a struggle for democracy, the liberal world order. If Americans do not have the stomach for it, there is something wrong with us, a moral failing.
These ham-fisted approaches befit the neoconservatives who wield them, as they did the same in the Global War on Terror, and to a great extent, worked to keep the Iraq War going for almost a decade and the war in Afghanistan shambling on for a full 20 years.
In addition to the destruction of two countries, trillions of dollars, a massive refugee crisis, a new generation of U.S. veterans dependent on lifetime assistance, and countless dead and wounded, these “elites” are in great part responsible for the mistrust of Washington that has eaten away at the culture and politics here to the core.
Poll after poll show a plunging lack of faith in American institutions, including the once-vaunted military. That’s what going to war based on lies, distortions, and rhetorical bullying will do to an already strained and tribalized society. Add a financial collapse (2008) that Washington addressed with an unprecedented bank bailout, while homeowners and workers struggled to survive, and you have the basis for major populist movements — on the left, and the right.
The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were buoyed in part by a continuing skepticism of the ongoing wars and of the elites at the helm of U.S. foreign policy, which had become as self-serving and disconnected from American interests as they were.
You would have thought they had learned their lesson.
But the war in Ukraine has given them new purpose and in that vein, to both patronize and ignore the wants and needs of the American public. A new commentary by Gian Gentile and Raphael S. Cohen, deputy director of the Rand Corporation’s Army Research Division, and Air Force Strategy and Doctrine Program, respectively, says it all. Clearly written for Beltway practitioners and politicians, the takeaway from “The Myth of America’s Ukraine Fatigue” is clear: don’t mind the polls, or even American public opinion. Ukraine’s (and in effect, Washington’s) long war will go on no matter what the hoi polloi is thinking, or feeling. In war, from a purely political perspective, it’s usually safer for politicians to stay the course.
Perhaps this is why democracies’ track records of playing the long game in armed conflicts is actually pretty good. From the ancient Athenians during the Peloponnesian War on through to the present day, democracies have not usually been the fickle, shrinking violets their detractors make them out to be. In the United States, the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were all eventually deeply unpopular. Yet the United States fought for three years in Korea, almost nine years in Iraq (before going back in after the initial withdrawal), and almost 20 years in both Vietnam and Afghanistan. All these campaigns involved significantly more investment of American blood and treasure than the U.S. commitment to Ukraine has demanded thus far.
The authors are referring to a number of recent polls that would appear to show that Americans’ unconditional support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion has its limits and in some cases, may be flagging. To start, Cohen and Gentile say that isn’t true, that Americans support Ukrainian sovereignty and the fight for it. Absolutely. What the authors don’t say is that the polls indicate that Americans are also concerned about a protracted war that could lead to more death and a direct U.S. confrontation with the Russians. That they are less enthusiastic about supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes,” and have shown a growing interest in negotiations to end the war sooner than later, even if that ultimately means concessions for both sides.
Instead of recognizing the nuance and giving credit to Americans for understanding the implications of another long war (whether they are directly involved on the ground or not), the authors blame the media for hyping up what they believe is the negative messaging from the surveys. Furthermore, they suggest that — citing the cases of Vietnam and our recent wars — conflicts will go on (and rightly so!) no matter where public opinion is at.
“If past is precedent, and present trends continue, it could be years before any of the declines in the American public’s support actually result in a change of policy,” the authors contend. Cohen and Gentile (much like their counterparts in the Iraq and Afghanistan War eras, did) diminish those “amplifying the Ukraine fatigue narrative,” claiming they fit into neat little categories: 1) “America First” Republicans who’d rather focus on domestic issues 2) “knee-jerk” anti-war activists on the left, and 3) those who “may genuinely sympathize with Russian talking points” that Americans will tire of the war.
Meanwhile, “some Americans may really believe that they are paying more of a price for the conflict than they in fact are, but this is primarily based on perceptions—not facts.”
Right. That is exactly what Fred Kagan, the AEI neoconservative who helped to craft the Iraq War Surge plan said in this lengthy National Review piece in 2008, entitled “Why Iraq matters: Talking back to anti-war party talking points,” in which he deployed this fatuous bromide:
Americans have a right to be weary of this conflict and to desire to bring it to an end. But before we choose the easier and more comfortable wrong over the harder and more distasteful right, we should examine more closely the two core assumptions that underlie the current antiwar arguments: that we must lose this war because we cannot win it at any acceptable cost, and that it will be better to lose than to continue trying to win.
Which makes this all very ironic, since (Col.) Gian Gentile was one of the few brave souls in the active duty military who were openly speaking out against Fred Kagan’s “Surge” and the counterinsurgency craze that was rocking the Blob during that period. He was an arch critic of Washington’s hyper-message management and selective history machinations. It is head scratching that he would oversimplify the effects of public opinion on recent wars — and suggest its relative unimportance — while offering the thinnest of arguments for in essence, “staying the course.”
“The leaders of the free world need to remind their publics what is at stake in Ukraine—not just for European and global security, but for democracy at large,” Gentile exclaims in his recent piece with Cohen.
This, from an historian who in his 2013 book, “America’s Deadly Embrace of Counter-Insurgency,” not only took on what he called the “myths” of Iraq and Afghanistan, but the shibboleths of the U.S. counterinsurgency in Vietnam and the British military’s “success” in Malaya (1948-60) as well.
Gentile’s “Ukraine fatigue myth” article is elite thinking, which reads as a pep talk for Beltway insiders in the wake of recent polling. For the rest of us, it is a cogent reminder that the same people who did not want regular Americans to actually think about foreign policy during the Iraq War, are still out there, whether they want to call themselves “elites” or not.