Who Is to Blame for US Foreign Policy?

Daily News Egypt
10 Min Read

It is a common perception that Americans do not pay enough attention to foreign policy. US policy makers and experts, as well as the American public, espouse the opinion that Americans are not well-informed about international relations.

The midterm congressional election campaigns, following the passing of September 11 s fifth anniversary, have generated a renewed focus on foreign policy and the Iraq war, bringing to the fore the issue of voters stances on such issues.

Among a number of editorials and op-eds, a call was made to the American public by Time magazine s managing editor, who wrote on 9/11 s anniversary that, as a matter of national security, Americans, as democratic citizens, must engage in foreign policy making. Richard Stengle called for a dialogue about what our foreign policy should be and what constitutes our national interests and values.

Our leaders, instead of encouraging us to look beyond our borders, give us reason to shut our eyes.

Stengle argued that the American people bear both the economic and human costs of such decisions and, therefore, they should be damn well able to pass judgment on the values of our foreign policies.

His concern is shared by others outside the United States, especially in regions directly affected by US foreign policy.

The people of the Middle East criticize Americans for their lack of interest in their country s actions abroad. In a region where the Iraq crisis has been raging since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country – not to mention other regional problems linked to US policies – people still often distinguish between the American government and people.

But Americans constant refrain in support of their representative, democratically elected governments has made Middle Easterners wonder if the American people should be held accountable for their leaders foreign policy.

Others don t blame the American people on the grounds that, inside the United States, there is minimal discussion by policy makers on US strategies abroad.

There is a deadly silence on the Middle East, says Dr. James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI) in Washington D.C. Either they can’t or won’t talk about it, and thus the public doesn’t talk about it.

He explains that people don t know how to focus on foreign policy because the leadership does not provide the wider parameters for debate.

One young American, a law student, also holdsleaders responsible – at least partially – for the people s ignorance. Americans tend to insulate themselves from world events, says Guinevere Jobson, and our leaders, instead of encouraging us to look beyond our borders, give us reason to shut our eyes.

Leaders, Zogby explains, are advised by campaign consultants not to talk about it, because their powerful constituents do not want them to. It’s a willed ignorance born of perception that you ll lose support, he says. I don’t think it s true.

[It is striking] how little Americans … [are] interested in the outside world, especially compared to how much interest there is in America.

Dr. John Brown, a former foreign service officer and an associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, publishes a daily public diplomacy press and blog review through the University of Southern California s Center on Public Diplomacy. His review of the softer side of foreign policy places him in a position to track the pulse of Americans thinking on foreign policy.

Brown states four primary reasons Americans traditionally have little interest in foreign policy. First, America is a continent-sized country that until the war on terror felt it could live on its own resources and prosperity. Second, the media tends to be narcissistic; it focuses on the United states to an excessive degree.

Third, the educational system s utilitarian focus means that many students do not take classes in international affairs because they do not think that knowing about the outside world is very important.

And finally, says Brown, since America is a nation of immigrants, perhaps the immigrant mentality has discouraged people from thinking too much about where they came from, which makes them focus on America instead.

We re not alone in this; other countries tend to be self-focused, Brown adds, but in Europe, for example, people are bound to think more about their neighbors because they are so close, whereas the American heartland is far away from any other country.

My impressions as a former FSO [foreign service officer] coming back to the US were being struck by how little Americans were interested in the outside world, especially compared to how much interest there is in America.

With midterm congressional races coming to final campaign mode, the central focus on the Iraq war in many election campaigns has divided experts about whether the old stereotype is true: Many observers think that, at least at the present time, Americans are paying more attention to international affairs.

A recent study by theGallup Pollshows that Iraq, national security, and terrorism have topped the list of issues that the American public wants its representatives in Washington to focus on.

It would be helpful for American democracy if more attention was paid by the media to foreign policy.

The midterm elections seem to reflect heightened interest in the outside world, even if that interest is primarily confined to the areas where Americans feel insecure, like Iraq.

A foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institute, a think-tank in Washington D.C., says he thinks there is an unusually high level of public interest in foreign policy at the moment because of the aftermath of September 11 and the war in Iraq.

“This is pretty good, says Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies. “This is what it should be at all times.

Pollack, whose book The Threatening Storm argued that the United States should invade Iraq, says that representatives must make it clear how foreign policy is directly relevant to daily life, because Americans do not get enough news, and the news carries relatively little foreign policy information in any case.

It would be helpful for American democracy if more attention was paid by the media to foreign policy.

Another expert, Dr. Shoon Murray, says that, despite the lack of available information, the American people have a general sense of political issues, especially after September 11 and the war in Iraq. They’re information poor but they have meaningful beliefs, said the professor of US foreign policy at the American University in Washington D.C.

Brookings Pollack agrees: The foreign policy cognoscenti love to bemoan how uninformed the American public is, but it isn’t as uniformed as they like to say.

Yet, Zogby still asserts that Americans are aware that they are not well-informed, and thus oftentimes say they don t know enough to form an opinion of foreign policy issues, especially in the Middle East. AAI conducts opinion polling, based on which Zogby has drawn his conclusion.

However, other polls conducted by World Public Opinion.Org (WPO) reveal that Americans do think about the values of their foreign policy. OneWPO pollshowed last spring that if intelligence had indicated Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons or provide support to Al-Qaeda, more than seventy percent would not have supported the war.

Another WPO poll showed that the vast majority of Americans support treaties, due process for terrorism suspects, and limits on torture; thus, while they may not be well-informed about policies, they nonetheless seem to have strong opinions about what values they believe should inform the policies taken.

The American people may not always pay attention to the countries outside their vast borders until they feel that policies abroad directly impact their life at home. The current debates about the Iraq war, terrorism, and torture seem to indicate that the public is thinking about America s role abroad and the values of their foreign policy. The c
hallenge, however, is to maintain this interest after the elections.

Courtney C. Radsch is a freelance journalist and doctoral candidate whose research focuses on the Arab media. For more information about Radsch, visit her website. Also, her blog can be found at ARABISTO.COM. This piece was reprinted with permission. It was first published on Islamonline.net.

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