10/30/2014 01:26 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Americans Are Not Isolationists

HAIDAR HAMDANI via Getty Images

The war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has just started, and it is too soon to know whether it will result in the victory that the world so desperately needs. But one verdict from the conflict is already in, and has larger ramifications: we now know hat the American people are not isolationists. They care about might being used to do right in the world, and it is time for politicians of both parties to stop saying they are simply following the wishes of the voters when they support isolating America from the world.

It is a standard move for a politician to dodge responsibility for deciding how to respond to an international crisis by saying that the American people want to avoid intervening. In the name of listening to an isolationist public, politicians of both parties say their hands are tied. In his State of the Union speech in 2012, President Barack Obama stated that Americans want to avoid foreign intervention because they want to focus on "nation-building right here at home." Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said on Meet The Press in August that the American people are "tired of war."

These statements are based on a misunderstanding of how Americans think about foreign policy. The evidence of the past few months indicates that Americans are willing to intervene overseas, so long as they are told why they need to do so.

Some issues in our political life evoke strongly held beliefs in the American people. Americans therefore follow these matters closely, and have strong policy positions. Their positions are stable even as political debates and political leaders change. For instance, Americans tend to have strong feelings about abortion, and these feelings tend not to change over the course of their lives -- regardless of how political leaders might try to persuade them.

By contrast, foreign policy is not a high-salience issue for most Americans. Most Americans do not follow the latest developments in the Arab Spring or in Hong Kong. Most of the time, foreign policy involves abstract issues transpiring far away. Foreign policy is an issue -- to borrow a phrase from another context -- that seems to involve ""human beings with the tears dried off."

Because of that, Americans do not bring as many strong priorities to the table in foreign policy. These foreign policy instincts do not lead Americans to support or oppose doing something about Hong Kong, for instance, in the same way that instincts about the government leads them to support or oppose ObamaCare.

Because of their lesser interest in foreign policy, the American people are not isolationists. They are simply open-minded, subject to persuasion by their political leaders. If political leaders tell them how to approach a foreign policy issue, they are more open to persuasion than for many other policy issues.

The most dramatic proof of this comes from the past few months. As ISIS was conquering parts of Iraq and Syria, and as the rest of the Middle East and North Africa turned for the worst, no one in Washington talked about these situations and the problems they posed. As a result, most Americans were telling pollsters that they did not want to intervene as much internationally. The New York Times featured an opinion piece in March -- relying on polling by the Pew Research Center -- that there was "the lowest level of public support for an active American foreign policy since 1964."

This proved to be accurate but fleeting. Americans were not isolationists. They just were listening to political leaders telling them not to care about problems in the rest of the world. When this changed, so did American public opinion -- and fast.

The American people changed from focusing little on the threats posed by Islamic radical groups in the Middle East to now 90 percent thinking that ISIS posed a serious threat to the United States. In June, less than half of Americans supported airstrikes against ISIS, and now 71 percent do. In May, most Americans wanted us to stay out of major problems overseas. Now, most Americans think the world is a very dangerous place and we are not doing enough to stop that.

It is time to pay attention to this lesson, and to use it going forward. If politicians tell us our government should stay out of the rest of the world because their constituents told them so, that is a political deflection of responsibility. If there are good reasons to do something overseas, and political leaders explain this to the American people, the American people will rally behind our political leaders.

Our country faces serious challenges overseas, and our president has only just started to pay attention to them. As the president deliberates about how to respond, it is time to rid our political discussions of a false hurdle in his process. The American people are not isolationists, and political leaders should do what our country requires -- and the American people will follow them, wherever that takes them.

David Fontana is Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University School of Law