Show Some Restraint

Author: Michael C. Desch

In a presidential debate with a sitting vice president, a candidate from the other party distanced himself from the activist foreign policy of the previous administration in favor of a more restrained approach to the world. “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building,” he declared. The candidate also warned that America’s overwhelming power was both a blessing and a curse. As he explained, “Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we have to be humble.”

You might think that this subdued foreign policy rhetoric could only come from the fringe, perhaps former Congressman Ron Paul, the erstwhile Libertarian party candidate and father of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who shares some of his father’s unorthodox foreign policy views. But if you guessed it was Dr. Paul, you would be mistaken.

The candidate who articulated these foreign policy views in the second debate with Al Gore during the 2000 campaign was none other than Texas governor and Republican standard-bearer George W. Bush. And they resonated with the public, helping him squeak out a narrow victory.

After his first year in office, few would characterize Bush as either humble or restrained. But it is worth asking whether the foreign policy approach with which he won the 2000 election made sense at the time. To do so, let’s imagine what the world might look like today had Bush remained true to his campaign platform and embraced a more restrictive policy. A number of things would have been different.

Had the Bush Administration fought the necessary post-9/11 war in Afghanistan to the finish, there is no guarantee the country would be more stable than it is today, though that is a pretty low bar for success. But it is likely that the Bush Administration would have decisively defeated the perpetrators of 9/11 — al-Qaida and the Taliban leadership — and brought Osama bin Laden, the architect of the attack on New York and Washington, D.C., which cost the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans, to justice within months of that heinous strike against our homeland. For after toppling the Taliban we had him and the bulk of his followers cornered in a mountain redoubt in eastern Afghanistan in November 2001. With a full commitment of U.S. military power we might well have killed bin Laden then, rather than a decade later. Bush, however, took his eye off that prize and bin Laden escaped to fight another day (actually more than 3,000).

What distracted the president’s focus that November was his increasing preoccupation with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. True, Saddam was an odious dictator with the blood of many Iraqis on his hands. He had previously dabbled with weapons of mass destruction and gave aid and comfort to groups making mischief for our friends and allies in the region, including the state of Israel. But in 2002, when warmongering was at its fever pitch in the Bush White House, Iraq had fully, if grudgingly, complied with United Nation’s disarmament resolutions. And despite his occasional support for anti-Israel terrorism, Saddam had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Indeed, his long-running feud with Iran served as a counterweight to another major U.S. adversary in the Persian Gulf region.

Most importantly, had Bush not made the flawed decision to invade Iraq, nearly 5,000 young Americans who died in that war would still be alive, and the more than 30,000 who were grievously wounded would be whole today and not destined to be wards of a dysfunctional Veterans Affairs health system for a generation to come. And let’s not forget the almost 120,000 Iraqis killed and hundreds of thousands more wounded as a result of that war.

Finally, in 2002, Bush voiced support for an independent Palestinian state, the first U.S. president to make such a declaration. But at the first whiff of domestic political grapeshot from the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the president retreated from this bold statement, reverting to our default pattern of unswerving support for Israel no matter what it did to its neighbors. Certainly not all of America’s problems in the Arab and Islamic world are the result of our increasingly one-sided backing of the Jewish state, but there is no doubt that our acting, in the words of former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, as “Israel’s lawyer,” defending it against all comers at the bar of global public opinion, has made our war against Islamic extremism much harder.

A different approach to all three of these issues, one characterized by the humility and restraint that candidate Bush campaigned on, would have produced a much better outcome for the United States and the rest of the world than did the alternative approach in which we sought to remake the world in our own image, often at the point of bayonets. In other words, such a strategy of Restraint made eminent good sense then — even after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Further, such an approach offers us today a better way to ensure America’s future national security in the face of a rising China, a rambunctious Russia and an ominously resurgent Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

To make this case, we need to take a class in Political Science. The syllabus includes: Define Restraint and contrast it with the alternative strategies available to the United States. Consider how each strategy has worked (or not) at various times in recent history. Learn how the core strategic dynamics of the future international security environment favor Restraint. This class will then consider the major strategic challenges facing the United States and discuss how Restraint offers our country the most effective posture for dealing with them. To be fair to the other strategies, we will engage with the best critiques of Restraint before concluding by asking whether a candidate running as an advocate of Restraint could be elected president in 2016.

Grand strategy

What Bush and Gore were debating in 2000, and what we are talking about today, is “grand strategy.” Grand strategy is how a country builds and employs its military forces within the constraints of its economic and other national resources to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Many different grand strategies exist, but most analysts agree that they boil down to four distinct approaches to reconciling military means with national ends.

One grand strategic option is Primacy, an approach that has fostered bipartisan consensus in recent years. This grand strategy seeks to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives by building and using military capability to ensure that no other country becomes, in the arcane argot of strategic analysis, our “peer competitor.” Primacists eschew collaborative approaches to dealing with security threats in favor of going it alone.

A second possible grand strategy is Cooperative Security. Here, the United States would act in concert with our allies, pooling all of our military resources to advance our common foreign policy objectives. Cooperative security epitomizes the multilateral approach that Primacy rejects. But it is similarly expansive in its ambitions, regarding trouble almost anywhere in the world as a threat to our common security.

Selective Engagement is the third strategic option available to the United States. As the name suggests, America’s interests are limited to “select” areas of the globe, defined as those that are strategically valuable to us due to their large and dynamic economies and industrial bases, possession of critical natural resources such as oil, or their geographical location. Selective Engagement favors using military force to protect these areas but is otherwise relaxed about events in other areas of the world. Selective Engagement is often pursued multilaterally.

Restraint is our final grand strategic option. Restrainers argue that the United States is secure behind its two oceanic moats on its North American island. Further, the dynamics of the contemporary international system — especially nationalism, the tendency of states to pursue their own goals and the deterrent threat of nuclear weapons — bolster U.S. security without requiring much additional effort. Given this, the United States can enjoy security without having to do as much as it has done in the past all around the world.

America has at one time or another tried each of these approaches. At times, conditions clearly favored one over the others. For example, during the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, our doctrine of Containment focused on preserving the balance of power by selectively defending the vital areas of Western Europe, the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia. Nuclear weapons on both sides reinforced the balance of terror, keeping the peace until the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed due to its internal contradictions, precisely as Containment’s architect George Kennan predicted. Selective Engagement was the only reasonable strategy open to the United States and its allies at the time. The disastrous consequences of our departures from this strategy in places such as Vietnam reinforce this point.

But circumstances during other periods did not always favor our grand strategy with felicitous results. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson sought to enmesh the United States in a Cooperative Security framework known as the League of Nations. This effort failed primarily because the domestic political balance was unfavorable to the former professor’s ambitious scheme for perpetual peace. And the victorious European powers preferred to isolate the Soviet Union and squeeze defeated Germany for reparations until the pips squeaked. Finally, even had there been a domestic and international consensus in favor of Cooperative Security, it is not at all clear that in a world of sovereign states looking out for their own interests it was ever a viable approach.

Often dismissed as Isolationism during the period between the wars, Restraint has something of an undeserved reputation for cowardice. Mesmerized by images of bowler-hatted appeasers promising peace in our time or crypto-fascist demagogues mimicking the Fuehrer or Il Duce and preventing the Allies from nipping the Axis in the bud, many forget that these powers were in no position until the war began to challenge the dictators. Britain and France lost quickly to Germany in the spring of 1940; why should we believe they would have done better in 1936 or even 1938, especially when the Soviet Union was allied with Germany? In other words, Restraint made sense for much of this period.

Finally, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has pursued a bipartisan grand strategy of Primacy. Through presidents Bill Clinton, the second Bush and even Barack Obama, the United States has followed a grand strategy to consolidate its dominant post-Cold War position. While the last three administrations may have differed in their tactics, all have been committed to the strategic objective of maintaining U.S. hegemony.

The George W. Bush administration was not the first to pursue U.S. dominance. Clinton’s 1996 National Security Strategy claimed the United States had “a special responsibility” for providing global leadership. His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, subsequently ruffled feathers in Europe and elsewhere when she argued that the United States should lead the international community because, “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further than other countries into the future.” Indeed, it was under Clinton that Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, committing us to overthrow Saddam. The only difference was that Clinton preferred a multilateral fig leaf, a velvet glove to hide Uncle Sam’s mailed fist.

Bush was more upfront: It was our way or the highway. When Condoleezza Rice ’75M.A., his national security adviser, characterized the United States as the “world’s guardian,” she was not departing dramatically from the position of the Clinton Administration and its liberal supporters in terms of the larger objective of maintaining U.S. primacy.

Despite fevered Fox News rhetoric about Barack Obama never meeting a red line he would defend or ally he would not throw under the bus, as a Democratic hopeful Obama early on embraced Primacy, arguing that “America is the last, best hope of Earth.” And he has shown little compunction about using drones or sending special operators into other countries to bring to justice our adversaries (even when they are U.S. citizens) or otherwise using American power to remake the world in our image.

But like a hangover after a wild party, the costs of Primacy are starting to come into focus in our bleary eyes. The evidence of the complete failure of our decade-plus exercise in overseas social engineering in Iraq and Afghanistan is beyond dispute. Neither country is stable nor democratic after all of the blood we spilled and the treasure we squandered on them. Indeed, Obama’s doubling down on a nation-building approach in Afghanistan has paid no real dividends and has cost more than 1,700 additional American lives since the troop uplift in 2009.

Our well-intentioned efforts to avert humanitarian crises by supporting opposition groups in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria have produced only greater instability in the former, which took the life of the U.S. ambassador. In Syria, the real beneficiaries of our efforts to undermine Assad are the fanatics of ISIS, a group that makes bin Laden’s al-Qaida look tolerant. We are now learning that many of the foot soldiers of this new caliphate were recruited in our jails in Iraq.

Our embrace of the Arab Spring and well-intentioned effort to promote democracy in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world got us nothing but the Muslim Brotherhood and a military dictatorship in Egypt. Being the global life of the party was fun while it lasted, but the Primacy bash is now over.

Reassessing strategy

If the adverse consequences of our two decade-long Primacy bender are not enough to spark a reassessment of our grand strategy, the lessons of the best scholarship of international relations theory should teach us that Restraint makes the most sense for the United States. Let’s consider seven propositions.

First, Kenneth Waltz’s seminal book Theory of International Politics contends that of all of the possible configurations of great powers in the international system, hegemony is the most ephemeral. The primary reason such dominance rarely lasts is that other great powers eventually counterbalance the global leader. They can do it softly through diplomacy, as “Old Europe” did against the United States in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, or they can do it the hard way, using military power, as Russia and China seem to be doing today.

Second, and related to the first proposition, we know that the dominant behavior of states in the international system is to balance against greater power rather than to hop on the bandwagon with it. Such balancing dynamics work against the United States in its role as the leader. However, international entities also will work against any other aspiring hegemon as well. This produces what international relations theorists call the “balance of power,” and its dynamics have a fundamentally stabilizing effect on great power politics.

Third, nationalism, the most powerful “ism” in global politics, is the engine of this balancing behavior. Because most states are motivated to preserve their group’s identity and freedom, we can count on them to protect themselves, especially if we do not give them any incentive to hide under our skirts.

Fourth, the advent of nuclear weapons and their spread among the great powers has ushered in a situation of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD), which has revolutionized global politics, again in a way favoring Restraint. As the early Cold War strategist Bernard Brodie argued, the Absolute Weapon was revolutionary precisely because it was so destructive that it could never be used the way previous weapons had been and so was useful only as a deterrent to prevent its use by the other side. In other words, a MAD world is a peaceful one, at least among nuclear powers.

Fifth, economists have alerted international relations theorists to the problem of “moral hazard.” This refers to the unintended consequences of otherwise benign behaviors: We buy car insurance but then drive less cautiously than we otherwise would. We have gold-plated health insurance, so we go to the emergency room rather than seeing our primary care doctor for the flu.

In global politics, the behavior of the leading great power can also create moral hazards. Sometimes smaller powers and allies, knowing that the hegemon will provide military security no matter what they do, will do less than they should for themselves. The classic illustration of this was the consistent unwillingness of smaller NATO states to pay their fair share of the alliance’s defense burden, confident that “Uncle Sugar” would pick up the tab.

Other times, the moral hazard of dominance encourages what MIT political scientist Barry Posen calls “reckless driving” in his new book, Restraint. Examples of such irresponsible behavior include Israel’s continued colonization of Palestinian territory, which is making the two-state solution to that conflict impossible. Without such a solution, Israel will be forced to make the existential choice between being a Jewish and a democratic state. The Shia favoritism of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that opened the door to the ISIS conquest of Sunni Iraq was also encouraged by his assurance that he could huddle under the United States’ (and Iran’s) security umbrella without having to represent all Iraqis. Finally, University of Texas scholar Alan Kuperman has documented how moral hazard dynamics can lead separatist groups to provoke greater violence from the regimes they fight in order to draw in international actors to support their quest for autonomy. Mitigating moral hazard is yet another rationale for Restraint.

Sixth, as the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer argues in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, the most a global leader can aspire to is dominance in its own region. Refining the older concept of “the power/distance gradient” — which holds that the farther from your homeland you try to project power the more of it you need — Mearsheimer adds that the stopping power of large bodies of water makes it even harder to project strength because of the cost to the attacker of crossing them and the ability of the defender to use them as defensive barriers.

Finally, strategists recognize that weaker powers can exploit asymmetries in weapons, tactics and interests to close the gap with larger powers. Guerrilla warfare was the classic Cold War form of asymmetric warfare; the Viet Cong used it to deadly effect against us in Vietnam. Today, the Chinese are pursuing a high-technology variant of asymmetric warfare to counter the United States in the Western Pacific. Instead of building a blue-water Navy centered around aircraft carrier battle groups like our own, the People’s Liberation Army/Navy/Air Force are developing a strategy based upon increasingly sophisticated land-based anti-ship missiles to make it impossible for the U.S. Navy to continue to operate in their littoral areas in wartime. Given that, even massive military preponderance is no guarantee we can effectively use it against weaker states.

In sum, the dynamics of the contemporary international system favor a grand strategy of Restraint. They make it hard for us to achieve more but also less necessary for us to do so.

Restraint and the future

The outlines of the future domestic and international security perils facing the United States further bolster the case for Restraint. While many issues are on our strategic agenda, five will be among the most challenging.

First, the ongoing negotiations to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power are unlikely to settle that issue over the long term. The United States has expended a lot of effort to contain the Islamic Republic, particularly its nuclear program. But it is not clear that we have been successful in this effort. Iran is becoming the regional power that the Nixon Doctrine envisioned for it in the 1970s, as its influence in Iraq continues to grow. Ironically, given that the mullahs are as frightened of ISIS as we are, we now have common interest with them in containing that threat.

The possibility that Iran might get a rudimentary nuclear capability is what keeps policymakers in Washington, Tel Aviv and other capitals awake at night. But it is not clear that it should. Just before he died, Kenneth Waltz wrote a short article for Foreign Affairs in which he argued convincingly that a puny Iranian nuclear arsenal would not threaten major nuclear powers such as the United States and Israel. Even more provocatively, he suggested that such a capability might actually make Iran more of a responsible international actor, in much the same way that Mao’s China mellowed after it developed nuclear weapons.

Second, the Israel-Palestine conflict is likely to fester. More than 65 years of Uncle Sam serving as “Israel’s lawyer” has brought neither peace to the region nor security to the Jewish state. Most dispassionate observers have concluded that the main obstacle now is less Palestinian recalcitrance — Hamas not withstanding — and more the domestic political gridlock in Israel created by a minority of the population doggedly committed to establishing a “greater Israel” from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.

A truly evenhanded approach by the United States, like the tough love George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, showed in the early 1990s, is now called for. Israel is a sovereign country, so we can’t force its leaders and people to make peace. But we can and should say to them that if they do not, they will find themselves alone. The costs of our no-strings-attached largesse to Israel well exceed the more than $3 billion a year they receive from us. If the Israelis continue to drive recklessly, it may be time to take away the keys.

Third, we will have to continue to wage the Global War on Terrorism, though al-Qaida is likely to be eclipsed by the even more radical and bloodthirsty ISIS. Indeed, al-Qaida looks downright moderate compared to the Daesh “B-Teamers.” The long war on terrorism will continue for years to come. But Restraint offers a better way to deal with this ongoing threat. We have a significant technological advantage in fighting remote warfare, and our armed drones are ideal weapons for combating terrorists while keeping the U.S. footprint on the ground small.

As with counterinsurgency, counterterrorist operations are as much political as military. Recognizing this, Restraint offers two advantages: Because terrorists, like guerillas, can only survive by swimming in the sea of popular support, removing some of the root causes of anti-American sentiment — and in the Arab and Islamic world the big issue is U.S. support for Israel — is as important as killing terrorist leaders.

Moreover, local dynamics can work in our favor without us being deeply involved in the region. In Iraq, by 2005 al-Qaida had made itself so odious by imposing its strict and violent form of Islam on other Iraqis that Sunnis, who had previously been the core of the anti-U.S. insurgency, tired of their “guests” from Pakistan, Chechnya or Saudi Arabia and joined the “Awakening Movement” that finally showed them the door. Likewise, had former Iraqi leader al-Maliki’s Shia sectarian regime not once again alienated the Sunnis, ISIS could not have made the spectacular gains it did last summer with their help.

Fourth, resurgent Russia’s effort to re-establish its regional dominance in its backyard will likely continue. Many critics of the Obama Administration regard Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and continued meddling in the East Ukraine as prima facie evidence of Obama’s supine foreign policy. But deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations began long before Obama. Russian leaders going all the way back to Boris Yeltsin U.S. efforts to expand NATO into the territory of the former Warsaw Pact and even Soviet Union as a violation of the assurances given to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the end of the Cold War. The view from Moscow is that the West is the aggressor, with Bush encouraging Georgia in 2008 and then Obama wooing Ukraine in 2013 to join NATO.

John Mearsheimer has a provocative piece in a recent Foreign Affairs that presents Moscow’s perspective and laments that at a time when a rising China constitutes the only conceivable peer competitor for the United States, we are alienating a potential ally in countering Chinese power in Russia’s Far East.

And the most dominant strategic challenge will be the rise — peaceful or otherwise — of China. Everyone agrees that this issue is the rhinoceros in the war room. Surely, critics might argue, responding to a rising China requires more than Restraint.

Our options for preventing China’s rise, however, are quite limited. We could, conceivably, fight a preventive war against them. But as Prussia’s Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck famously quipped, fighting a preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of natural death.

Containing China is a better option, and Restraint facilitates this in two important ways. More aggressive containment of China risks making our fears of conflict with her a self-fulfilling prophecy, but Restraint allows us to accomplish this without directly confronting the dragon. And if we take the lead in containing China, we make it more likely that such states as Japan and South Korea will ride on our military effort rather than doing all they should to protect themselves. Restraint will make it possible for us to contain China by relying upon local allies who are motivated by the most powerful of incentives: self-interest.

Finally, we will have to face these external challenges with constrained economic resources as the unrelenting growth in the cost of domestic entitlement programs crowds out other government spending, including national defense. Restraint is not only the best strategy for squaring this policy circle, it is increasingly the only viable one.

Objections to Restraint

Important arguments against Restraint do exist. Many critics equate it with “isolationism,” dismissing its advocates as dupes or naïve pacifists. But advocates of Restraint are anything but. They are hardheaded realists who are not afraid to use military force when it is in our country’s interest to do so but who also think we should be smart about when, where and how we do so.

In fact, Restrainers are the intellectual heirs of the George Washington of the “Farewell Address,” who counseled that “the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible”; of John Quincy Adams, who advised us to eschew going abroad in search of monsters to destroy; and of Dwight David Eisenhower, who famously sought to balance security with fiscal responsibility and warned against the nefarious influence of a growing “military-industrial complex” with a vested interest in unrestrained military spending.

Others might concede that Restraint is different from isolationism but argue that since they are kissing cousins they share some of the same defects. In this view of history, had the isolationists not held sway before World War II, the United States might have joined the anti-Axis coalition sooner and strangled the infant Third Reich in the cradle. Like all Monday morning quarterbacking, this argument seems more compelling in hindsight than it did at the time. But it is simply not clear that had the United States and its allies tried to force the issue with the Axis between 1936 and 1938 it would have done anything other than start World War II when Britain, France and the United States were woefully unprepared for war and Stalin’s Soviet Union was still standing aloof from the Allies.

Some want to dismiss Restraint as a fringe position, given its association with George McGovern and the old antiwar Left or, more recently, the Libertarian movement and Ron Paul’s quixotic presidential aspirations. The fact that some of those ideological persuasions were pushing Restraint during the Cold War, at a time when it was less appropriate for the United States, seemingly lends support to this jaundiced view.

But just because Restraint may have been advocated at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons in the past does not discredit it for all time. Indeed, the fact that the establishment Republican candidate in 2000 made it a central feature of his foreign policy platform, and many foreign policy Realists with impeccable scholarly and policy credentials now embrace it, suggests we should take it seriously today.

A common argument primacists on the left and right of the political spectrum make is that without global leadership, the free and open political and economic post-World War II world order will collapse. There is something to this theory of “hegemonic stability” that institutions function best when a big power is committed to paying a disproportionate share of the cost of the institution’s operations. But it is not at all clear that the United States needs to continue to provide both economic and military leadership for the world. Indeed, we have been paying the exorbitant costs of the latter over the last two decades.

In addition to provoking pushback from other actors chafing under our dominance, another cost of this leadership has been smaller states putting off getting their domestic houses in order. Paraphrasing the British guerrilla leader T.E. Lawrence’s famous adage about the best way for the British to help the Arabs, Restraint suggests that to avoid these problems it is better for the United States to let other countries do things badly than not at all in order to avoid the moral hazard of our activist policies.

A final objection to Restraint is that it is immoral because it shirks our responsibility to use our great power to right the wrongs of the world and protect those who are the victims of injustice or human rights violations. This is also a bipartisan impulse, uniting Democrats like Bill Clinton, who intervened in the Balkans in the 1990s, with George W. Bush, who justified the Iraq War in part on the grounds of Saddam’s “criminal treatment of the Iraqi people.”

Restrainers, in contrast, understand that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. The sorry state of Iraq and Libya are only the most recent examples of well-intentioned U.S. interventions going awry. Restrainers also understand that even otherwise moral and decent countries can lose their moral bearings in the savage wars of the 21st century, as the recent revelations about our use of torture make clear. Restrainers maintain that in many cases the most moral policy is one in which we refrain from exercising our power.

Voice of the voters

The 2016 presidential campaigns have already begun, and most of the leading contenders seem to advocate an assertive U.S. grand strategy to maintain undisputed U.S. global leadership. But there are rumblings from both sides of the aisle in favor of change. Rand Paul is trying to let some fresh air into the stuffy atmosphere inside the GOP’s tent, and Democrats such as Jim Webb of Virginia assert that it is time for new thinking about U.S. grand strategy. Still, leading candidates for the nomination in both parties — Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal — seem nostalgic for the halcyon days of U.S. primacy while ignoring its costs.

But this may be an instance where elite thinking is out of step with the views of Joe Six-Pack and the proverbial man in the Kansas City barbershop. The 2012 Chicago Council on Global Affairs public opinion survey found that, since 2002, the percentage of the public that thinks the United States should play an active role in the world has dropped significantly. The smallest drop was among Republicans, who declined from 77 to 70 percent over this period. Self-identified Democrats dipped from 70 to 60 percent. The biggest drop came among independents, where the decline was a whopping 15 percent from 70 to 55 percent.

These findings do not indicate that the American public has become isolationist in the sense of seeing no role for the United States in the world. On the other hand, potential presidential contenders such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who have not yet staked out a well-articulated foreign policy platform, might want to think twice before they drink the Primacy Kool-Aid.

It may make sense for them in the short term to appease the Neoconservative-inclined activists and hawkish Republican primary voters to get the nomination. But as Mitt Romney learned the hard way, the winner is the one who can garner the most voters from the center, among the otherwise politically unaffiliated.

And it is precisely among such voters that the yearning for a less activist U.S. foreign policy is strongest. Defending our core national security interests and helping our friends to help themselves remains popular, but supporting ungrateful allies, trying to sort out murky conflicts on the former Soviet periphery, or adjudicating between equally odious despots in places like Syria have exhausted their patience. Many voters do not necessarily want Uncle Sam to “come home,” but they clearly want him to restrain himself after two decades of trying to run the world.

Michael Desch is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Program.