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Respecting the Will of the People

Public opinion and the war in Afghanistan.

Words: Andrew Leber
Pictures: Toa Heftiba

Even as American citizens and Afghan employees of the United States still wait for periodic evacuation flights out of Kabul, the blame game for “losing” Afghanistan is already in full swing. Plenty of national security journalists wedded to a muscular US foreign policy and pundits eager to highlight “what’s wrong with the United States” have variously attacked President Biden for pursuing the US military withdrawal, criticized the American public for supporting withdrawal, and questioned the very idea of relying on US public opinion as a guide to US foreign policy. While these criticisms offer fair warning against the idea of replacing US foreign policymaking with public opinion polling, they miss the broader lesson of the Afghanistan war — that no foreign policy (hawkish or dovish) is sustainable in perpetua without some degree of public support behind it.

Like much punditry on and coverage of Afghanistan in recent months and years, most criticism of the withdrawal has little to do with the 40 million people of Afghanistan and very much to with the implicit ideology of many self-styled “opinion leaders” — that US military presence abroad is “good,” and criticism of it ill-informed or misguided. 

The Atlantic’s commentary on the withdrawal has featured this in full, with Caitlin Flanagan scolding the American Left for abandoning human rights in its support for withdrawal, Anne Applebaum scolding Americans for tiring of “forever war” in defense of liberal democracy, and Tom Nichols scolding the American public for poor grasp of foreign policy and lack of respect for the experts (like Tom Nichols). Yascha Mounk even found a way to frame the Afghanistan withdrawal as an example of naive pandering to the masses. (The Atlantic at least found space for one Afghan perspective, relayed by staff writer Yasmeen Serhan).

Looking at these kinds of opinion columns, as opposed to more specialized articles in Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy, offers insights into how US foreign policy is debated and presented at what we might call the “mezzo” level — a broad audience ranging from decently informed readers to government officials and policy analysts. Op-eds are certainly not the same as public opinion, but presidents and think tanks have recognized the importance of op-eds in shaping public opinion for decades.

In light of this, I reviewed all op-eds and editorials referencing the Afghanistan withdrawal in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times from January to July of this year as part of a broader project for Fellow Travelers Blog. Together, these discussions offer a sense of just how disconnected elite commentary can be from US public opinion. (This commentary is obviously disconnected from Afghan opinions of any kind — just two such articles out of more than 50 were by Afghan writers, journalist Farahnaz Forotan and former Afghan Ambassador to the United States Roya Rahmani.)

Mostly, op-eds and editorials ran strongly against the withdrawal: all 6 articles in the Wall Street Journal, and 13 of 20 that ran in the Washington Post setting aside those that either took no clear stance on the withdrawal, or accepted it in practice despite clearly opposing it on principle. Only the New York Times ran more columns in support of the withdrawal (6) than opposed to it (2, by Bret Stephens and David Brooks) — though even here, NYT foreign correspondents have been all too willing to signal their unhappiness with the withdrawal.

Converting positions taken by these op-eds into a crude opinion poll can serve as a rough measure at best of “elite opinion” writ large. Doing so — whether support for withdrawal as a percentage of all op-eds or only those taking a clear position — suggests that only NYT commentary was in the same ballpark as public opinion per latest available polling from YouGov in April and July of 2021. Even in the immediate aftermath of media scenes of a chaotic withdrawal in mid-August, a majority of respondents expressing an opinion still favored withdrawal.

Figure X: Percentage of op-eds favoring withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, out of all op-eds that took a clear position on withdrawing. YouGov polling indicates support for withdrawal as a percentage of all respondents expressing an opinion (i.e. not those who were “not sure” about policy); August 18-20 poll did not have a “not sure” option.

Many critics have contended either that public opinion polling should not be a reliable guide to US foreign policy, or even that US public opinion would favor (read: tolerate) maintaining a troop presence in the country. Earlier this year, think tankers from CNAS (in the WSJ) and Brookings (on the Institution’s website) argued that plenty of Americans were still uncertain on Afghanistan policy, and that parsing the data closely suggested enough ambiguity to support staying in Afghanistan… for some unspecified amount of time.

Exercises in “un-skewing the polls” where Afghanistan is concerned only underscore the limits of US support for a military presence in the country, however. In early 2020, for example, another Brookings post emphasized that “a plurality of respondents [to an October 2019 poll] favored maintaining current troop levels.” Still, looking at survey results shows that more respondents favored removing some or all US troops by the end of 2020 (45%) than favored maintaining or expanding a US presence (37%). The results also indicate that only 27% opposed troop reductions already scheduled for 2020, and that there was limited support for the use of US military force to head off an advance by the Taliban (only 15% “strongly approve”) relative to economic sanctions (about 50%) or diplomacy (about 40%).

It should also be clear that this is what results from decades of trying to hide a militarized policy from the American public, save to remind them that any death, destruction and corruption carried out in their name is for the good of “national security.”

Likewise, commentators like Nichols and Applebaum — who all but argue that foreign policy should really be left to the nation’s “best and brightest” — ignore the fact that we live in a democracy, where open-ended, large-scale, overseas military commitments may not be sustainable as a matter of course; and that the case for remaining in Afghanistan has worn thin after decades of justifying every type of US military action under the sun in the name of prosecuting an open-ended Global War on Terror. It is abundantly clear that voters — and especially would-be Democratic voters — have told pollsters again and again that they want the federal government to pare back US military commitments. It should also be clear that this is what results from decades of trying to hide a militarized policy from the American public, save to remind them that any death, destruction and corruption carried out in their name is for the good of “national security.”

While a model of low-visibility “violence management” may (unfortunately) be politically sustainable where the US public is largely unaware of specific deployments (such as numerous deployments across Africa), this is much less of an option for America’s longest-running war. A 15-year line of research by political scientists argues that success matters in shaping the US public’s support for war, and the terrible events of the past week have unfortunately demonstrated all the more just how unsuccessful the US effort to build a viable state in Afghanistan was.

These critiques have a point, however, in noting how malleable US public opinion can be — particularly where partisanship is involved. In 2020, around 67% of Republicans supported a Trump-favored deal with the Taliban that would include a withdrawal; only a plurality (43%) favor withdrawal under Biden. Among Democrats, a plurality that “didn’t know” whether it favored withdrawal in 2020 (45%) has broken largely in favor of withdrawal under the Biden administration (72%). It is likewise true that support for withdrawal from Afghanistan slipped in mid-August amid the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and media scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport (albeit with a plurality of respondents still favoring the removal of US troops).

In all, a clear takeaway from these critiques is to distinguish the importance of building public support for a sustainable progressive (or indeed any) foreign policy within a democracy from the more simplistic idea that the “will of the people” will serve as a straightforward guide to US foreign policy in all areas. As other research has made clear, “public opinion” does not exist wholly independent of arguments made in the public sphere. Few on the left would argue now, for example, that the clear majorities favoring the US invasion of Iraq justify the invasion — especially given the extent to which public opinion can certainly be shaped (if not determined) by elite cues and media coverage.

Hence, those favoring a progressive foreign policy must be prepared to persuade the public on key issues rather than merely channeling the public’s views through policy. Despite widespread public support in theory for the use of diplomatic finesse over military might, for example, a majority of Americans (61%-51% among Democratic voters) still insist on military primacy; the idea of cutting defense spending in the abstract polls in the 30-35% range.

This will prove critical should some future event — whether terrorist attack or diplomatic incident — provide an opportunity for some commentators to once again build public support for using US military might abroad. Given how poorly the US government has been able to handle winding down this war, it’s clear that the safest way to wind down extended US military engagements is to prevent them from happening to begin with.

Andrew Leber is a PhD candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government, and occasionally writes and edits for Fellow Travelers, a platform for left foreign policy proposals and debates. His most recent article for the site, “Scaling Back Sanctions,” forms part of the Fellow Travelers 2021 briefing booklet Foreign Policy is Possible.

Andrew Leber

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