"Some things in foreign policy have to be done away from TV cameras." ~ White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
The events of the past several days -- since January 25th -- have been incredible to watch from our desks, sofas, and armchairs, as the Egyptian people pursue their most basic, fundamental right of self-rule. It has also been a trying time for President Obama and America's foreign policy apparatus; while not an ocean of calm, the Middle East has had for many years certain political realities that American presidents, dating back to Eisenhower, have taken for granted as they crafted our foreign policy with respect to the Arab world. The recent upheavals and unrest in the region have brought to light the fact that now, more than ever, people are following what happens in the world. And this could be dangerous for American foreign policy.
The advent of social media and the prominence and proclivity of public opinion polls have in many ways dramatically altered our foreign policy -- or rather, have dramatically altered our perception of American foreign policy. The Internet, Twitter, and Facebook have all raised public awareness of and interest in world affairs, and -- much like we've seen for years on more "domestic" issues such as education, health care, and the economy -- mainstream media accounts of what the American people think about our engagement with the world have become ever more prominent. And, with a head nod to the role of rapid globalization, we now know not only what Americans think of the world, but what the world thinks of America. In real time.
While we have seen plenty of vocal castigation and accusations of "finger in the wind" legislating and leadership in modern politics, there could be similar pressure on American leaders to take public opinion into account when formulating our foreign policy. Take the current situation in Egypt as an example. Looking at international public opinion surveys, a recent Pew Global poll showed that the United States is viewed favorably by just 17% of Egyptians, which has led some to argue that the U.S. should stay out of a situation in which we are viewed so negatively by the indigenous population. A competing poll from the BBC, however, showed American favorability in Egypt at 45%. With this data, others have argued that we should reach out to the Egyptian people, who want democracy and look to the United States as a friend and inspiration. So, which poll is right? And should it matter?
To make matters worse, polling of Americans adds little clarity to the environment; to wit, a poll just released by Scott Rasmussen shows that 41% of likely U.S. voters rate the way the Obama administration has responded to the situation in Egypt as good or excellent, while twenty-two percent (22%) view the administration's response so far as poor. So, according to some Americans, what Obama has done thus far is good, but not great, or perhaps not so good. Or just poor. In reality, there is strong evidence Americans have very little knowledge about foreign affairs; take, for example, the fact that the median estimate Americans believe the United States spends on foreign aid is 25 percent of our annual budget, when in fact it is roughly one percent.
The question is, should public opinion -- here or abroad -- play a role in an American response to Egypt specifically, or in foreign policy generally?
The hard reality is there is a realpolitik in American foreign policy that has often led our government to support dictators. This may sound anti-American, but there is a simple and profound truth to the goals of American foreign engagement: our leaders must do what is in the best interests of the United States. Period. We can debate what constitutes "best interests," but it is often the case that conducting diplomacy with a dictatorial and stable regime is better for this country than contending with an unstable "democracy." Whether the citizens of another nation love or hate us, decisions about how we engage the world are based on a series of calculations that very few of us are aware of or understand. And polls that show a blow-by-blow analysis of how Americans approve or disapprove of a President's foreign policy decisions -- particularly in a fast-moving situation like Egypt -- add very little substantively to the process. At times, they can even be detrimental.
In 2003 Americans were reassuringly told that we would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqi public as a way of raising public support for the invasion. But the "public" is often fickle and today's admiration could become tomorrow's condemnation. While it's certainly important to know and even try to understand, public opinion -- ours or international -- should be but one very small consideration when thinking about our role in, and relationship with, the world.
There are myriad reasons why presidents do what they do when crafting our foreign policy. As a pollster, I'm fascinated by public opinion, even when I know that most people have only the slightest inkling about what our international policies are, and certainly even less for why we came to implement them. And public opinion research can be an invaluable tool for getting a better sense of the landscape -- be it for an issue campaign, crafting the framework for messaging, or understanding target audiences. But as an informed citizen, I cringe when I see polling data turned into talking points as rationale for foreign policy decisions. I'm not anti-polling on foreign policy; I just know when a poll is just a poll.