Despite Critics, Obama’s Defense Policy Is Popular With the Public

Several hundred demonstrators march in downtown Seattle to protest the war in Afghanistan in October 2011 ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the start of the war.

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Several hundred demonstrators march in downtown Seattle to protest the war in Afghanistan in October 2011 ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the start of the war.

The defense policy President Obama detailed at West Point will be pummeled by politicians and pundits, but it's popular where it counts -- with the American people. By Joe Cirincione

“You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan,” President Barack Obama told cheering cadets at West Point this week. He reminded them that over the past 6 years he has withdrawn the more than 100,000 troops that were in Iraq when he took office. And he announced he would withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

“Weak and ineffectual,” claimed Iraq War proponent and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nationa John Bolton in The Wall Street Journal. Bolton ridiculed Obama as “isolationist” for “rejecting the extensive, muscular projection of American power.”

But the end of these wars could not come soon enough for most Americans. Gallup reported in February that more Americans now view the war in Afghanistan as a mistake.  It’s a remarkable erosion of support from 2002 when 93 percent of Americans supported the war, and even from 2011 when 58 percent still supported it. That number has now dropped to only 48 percent in support.

The sentiment is even stronger on Iraq. Seventy-five percent of the public supported the invasion in 2003, but Gallup reported “majorities or near-majorities have viewed the conflict as a mistake continuously since August 2005.”

Is Obama pulling the troops out too soon? Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., was quick to blast Obama’s plan as a threat “to the future security of this country.” But a whopping 96 percent of Americans say they want all or most of the troops to come back home this year, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll – much faster than Obama is proposing.

You do not have to get into long arguments about why we waged an unnecessary war in Iraq or how we bungled a quick victory in Afghanistan into the longest war in American history. The public just wants out. 

What about new wars? Again the public is solidly against. Last year, polls showed Americans overwhelmingly (82 percent) in favor of the agreement not to intervene militarily and have Syria turn its chemical weapons over to international inspectors.

These sentiments would also seem to support the president’s preference “to mobilize partners and collective action” when “issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States.” Six in 10 Americans were against military strikes on Syria, even if that nation had refused to give up its chemical arms.

Despite withering criticism from political opponents and much of the Washington pundit crowd, the administration’s policy on Ukraine is looking better these days.  “We don’t know how the situation will play out and there will remain grave challenges ahead,” Obama told the cadets, “but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without us firing a shot.” 

Again, the public is solidly with him. In early May, polls showed only 6 percent of the public supported military action against Russia, while an overwhelming 65 percent supported the type of economic and diplomatic efforts Obama has pursued. 

Finally, on the critical issue of Iran, Obama’s long efforts to secure a comprehensive agreement that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon has won broad backing from the public.

“At the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government,” Obama said,  “And now we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully.”

That is what Americans want. A recent poll shows 52 percent of the public opposed to military strikes on Iran with only 27 percent in favor. When pollsters read them the best arguments from both sides, the public swings even more heavily against war, 70 percent to 22 percent.

Far fewer now say Iran is the greatest threat to the nation compared to just 2 years ago, Gallup reported in February. Iran was the top threat, said 32 percent of the public in 2012. Today that has been cut in half, to 16 percent. 

An overwhelming 56 percent favor the interim deal reached with Iran, reported CNN last November – and that was before it became clear that the deal had actually frozen Iran’s nuclear program and rolled back key parts of it while the nations negotiate a permanent solution.

“For the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement,” said Obama, “one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force… This is American leadership. This is American strength.”

The public seems to agree. Although it will never be reflected on the Sunday talk shows or the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, when asked to choose between the policies of John McCain and John Bolton and those of Barack Obama, there is no question what Americans want. 

They want the plan from the man at West Point.

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.

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