The response to Obama’s troop increase in Afghanistan is an interesting look at public opinion and the foreign policy elite. The Economist, foreign policy elitism at its finest, thinks Obama is showing weakness. Others – within Obama’s own crew – think he made the wrong decision. The public, with interest in Afghanistan, is more fearful about China, health care, and flat-out reducing US foreign involvement. Finally – and interestingly – the Neocons are supporting the Obama policy in Afghanistan. I guess I should clarify that. I am not saying it is shocking that the Neocons support the Afghan decision; it is just interesting that Obama would implement a strategy which would also be supported by Neocons.
Afghanistan troop increases make sense for Neocons, whose mantra of hegemony and Manichean motivations make foreign involvement a perpetual responsibility. Most of the American public, however, do not agree with that. This is not to say that Obama is becoming a Neocon – not at all – but it does illustrate that the Neocons are not strictly Republican either. They are independent foreign policy elite who found a home in the Bush administration when answers were needed and strategy implemented. The public seems to lump them with Republicans now – and that is not a fair understanding of the nuances.
The divide between the public and the foreign policy elite is apparent, and the decision in Afghanistan – while not based on a Neocon perspective – is a great example. Other recent divisions: the public fear of China and the elite’s conviction that the threat is almost nonexistent, at least for another generation. The elite are concerned with climate change; the public wants less foreign involvement.
All of this is to say, how well is Obama doing in his attempts to bridge the divide? I think he is doing a pretty good. I happen to agree with many of his decisions, but I also think any honest observer should admit Obama is doing good job of keeping the public informed and not getting major blowback for his decisions. Afghanistan is an example. It was a major decision for Obama to send more troops - more troops than Bush in Iraq. It may have divided his party but there were no major “Vietnam” protests as a result. Whether or not Obama is appearing weak is the wrong question. Weak to who? Clearly, the President has specific foreign policy agendas. Balancing and communicating those to the US public is not an easy task, and I think Obama is doing a good job with his rhetoric.