In his historic visit to the United States, Pope Francis spoke frequently about the importance of peace and of negotiation and cooperation. His words clashed with a U.S. presidential debate marked by the bellicose postures of candidates in both parties. Francis speaks from a religious, not a political, frame, but ironically, he may have a greater grasp on American public opinion than many of those seeking to lead this country.
Francis opened his visit by praising President Obama for “efforts which were recently made to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation,” clearly a reference to the opening to Cuba and the nuclear weapons deal with Iran. In his address to Congress, he emphasized the importance of “dialogue and peace,” of being “truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.” He called for an end to the arms trade, driven, he argued, simply by “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” At the United Nations, Francis decried war as “the negation of all rights,” calling on leaders to “work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples.”
Most of those contending for the presidency are having none of this. Marco Rubio, who brandishes his foreign policy expertise on the campaign trail, would tear up the Iran deal, reverse the opening to Cuba, get tough with Russian President Vladimir Putin and escalate military pressure in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. Rubio supported the Iraq war and the Libya intervention, criticizing the president only for “leading from behind.” Carly Fiorina doubles down on uber-hawkishness, childishly boasting that shewould not even talk with Putin or have a state dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping, while calling on muscular and costly flexing of U.S. military presence from the Baltics to the South China Sea. Jeb Bush indicts Obama for being weak, even as he stumbles over his brother’s calamitous Iraq war, arguing that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a “pretty good deal.” He’ssurrounded himself with the worst of the neoconservative claque that has learned nothing from the Iraq debacle.
Hillary Clinton is more restrained than the above, but she has consciously sought to position herself to the hawkish right of Obama on foreign policy. She boasts that she wanted a bigger, earlier intervention in the Syrian civil war and a tougher policy toward Putin. She announced her support for the Iran nuclear deal, but only while ruling out any change in relations and detailing a new set of sanctions, more weapons to Israel and more U.S. forces in the region, to strangle any rapprochement at birth. She of course voted for the Iraq war and was a leading advocate for the wrong-headed Libya intervention.
It is notable that the outsiders who have surged in both parties are markedly less bellicose. Donald Trump reminds voters constantly that he opposed the Iraq invasion in contrast with his rivals. He argues he is the “most militaristic person ” and would bolster our already bloated military, but only so it need never be used. He has mocked the Iran deal but argued that he could make sure it was enforced. He boasts he could “get along” with Putin. He suggests that our European allies should handle Ukraine, that we might be wise to let Putin take on the Islamic State in Syria and that the South Koreans can defend themselves against the small and impoverished dictatorship to the north. Trump, of course, presents himself as a macho, truculent tough guy but generally seems more reluctant to put lives at risk than his adversaries.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has shattered all expectations. While the Vermont senator has focused on his economic message, he is also a longtime advocate of peace and negotiation. He voted against the Iraq war and dissented from the Libyan mess. He has embraced the Iran deal and opposes increasing U.S. military forces in the Middle East. He has supported multilateral sanctions against Putin in Ukraine but has cautioned against any threat of military force. He argues that unending wars are too costly in lives and resources and are weakening the United States.
These positions may not be central to the rise of Trump and Sanders in the polls. Trump is a celebrity whose brash posturing and belittling of all opponents echo the anger and anti-politician sentiments of his supporters. Sanders is a stentorian advocate of working people who have too often been without a champion.
But clearly their foreign policy postures have not hurt them. Bush has already been damaged by his bumbling over the Iraq war. And Rubio’s credibility as a foreign policy expert is sapped by the fact that he was wrong on Iraq and Libya, two disastrous interventions that helped lead to the current catastrophe in the Middle East. Clinton paid a heavy price for her Iraq war vote in the 2008 primaries against Obama. In a Democratic debate, that vote, her support for the Libyan intervention and her hawkishness may yet come back to haunt her this time around.
With the Islamic State beheading people on camera, polls show rising support for greater U.S. intervention against it. But American attitudes about foreign policy are clear. Majorities have no desire to police the world. Americans have little patience for endless wars. Majorities believe we’re spending either enough or too much on the military. Americans support diplomacy and negotiations and want the military used only as a last resort.
The mainstream debate is narrow and constricted. Obama is blistered for being weak, for retreating, for wanting to remove the United States from the world. This while U.S. Special Operations forces operate in a staggering 135 countries. The military maintains an empire of bases across the world and a Navy that polices the seas. Drones drop bombs on eight countries while patrolling many more. The National Security Agencyeavesdrops on the world. And America’s longest wars continue in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
In this context, Francis’s words thus may fall on more receptive soil than the media think. And the candidates who vie to present the most pugnacious postures may find themselves losing, not winning, support.