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September 04, 2014 4:54 PM When Revenge Rules Foreign Policy

By Ed Kilgore

In my earlier post on the IS “crisis” I suggested it’s irrational for American foreign policy to turn itself inside out over the barbaric murder of two (or in the future, perhaps more) U.S. journalists, horrible as it is. Peter Beinart has a very persuasive column at The Atlantic today arguing it’s important we understand the public reaction to the beheadings is entirely irrational, but reflects the enduring “Jacksonian” strain of U.S. foreign policy whereby intense rage at violations of our national honor justify completely disproportionate and sometimes even self-defeating responses:

Last September, when YouGov.com asked Americans whether they supported air strikes “against Syria,” only 20 percent said yes. Last week, by contrast, when it asked whether Americans supported strikes “against ISIS militants in Syria,” 63 percent said yes.
In narrow policy terms, the arguments for military intervention have not improved over the last two weeks. It’s still not clear if Iraq’s government is inclusive enough to take advantage of American attacks and wean Sunnis from ISIS. It’s even less clear if the U.S. can bomb ISIS in Syria without either empowering Assad or other Sunni jihadist rebel groups.
But politically, that doesn’t matter. What’s causing this Jacksonian eruption is the sight of two terrified Americans, on their knees, about to be beheaded by masked fanatics. Few images could more powerfully stoke Jacksonian rage. The politicians denouncing Obama for lacking a “strategy” against ISIS may not have one either, but they have a gut-level revulsion that they can leverage for political gain. “Bomb the hell out of them!” exclaimed Illinois Senator Mark Kirk on Tuesday. “We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age,” added Texas Senator Ted Cruz. These aren’t policy prescriptions. They are cries for revenge.

Well, they could represent something a lot worse than that. If you look back at how we got into the Iraq War, the simple political dynamics were that the Bush administration exploited a national desire for revenge (“Let’s Roll”) to launch not one but two wars, on the highly cynical but accurate assumption that many Americans held Arabs or maybe even Muslims collectively responsible, and that the absence of a second 9/11 retroactively justified the “revenge.” Many of the Republican pols now howling for revenge have recently howled for violence against Iraq, against North Korea, against Syria, against Russia and (perpetually) against Palestinians. Who can tell how many agendas will eventually be lashed to the project of making IS pay for its barbarism?

More immediately, as Beinart points out, Obama is especially unlucky in encountering (potentially) the same combination of developments that undid a certain predecessor:

All of a sudden, the domestic politics of foreign policy bear a vague resemblance to the late Carter years. The Iran hostage crisis did not lend itself to a simple policy response either. But to many Americans, it represented a primal humiliation, broadcast on screens across the world. And the hostage crisis primed Americans to see the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year as yet another example of Jimmy Carter failing to prevent America from being disrespected around the world. The danger for Obama is that the ISIS beheadings color the public’s view of his Russia policy in the same way.

Having spent a good part of the 2012 presidential cycle trying to convince Americans that they were actually reliving 1980 and needed to get that wimpy Democrat out of the White House, Republicans can be expected to resume making this connection directly. But even without the potent Russia/hostage combo, the politics of restraining the Jacksonian impulse could be as difficult for Obama as for Carter.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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