The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy since Vietnam: Constraining the Colossus

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

Preface

Comprehending the role that public opinion plays in foreign policymaking has long provoked both fascination and frustration. Since before the Vietnam War, the many and varied advances in understanding the complex facets of the topic have still left it theoretically underdeveloped. Since the height of the Vietnam War, scholars, activists, and policymakers have all wondered what role the public actually plays in the policy process. This exploration advances answers to that compelling question.

The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy: Constraining the Colossus argues and demonstrates that public opinion constrained but did not set American foreign intervention policy during the generation from the Vietnam War to the Bosnia peacekeeping. The public's attitudes set the parameters within which policymakers operated. Within those limits, the policymakers had relative discretion about which policies to choose. This discretion was wider when conflicts were less salient or when public support was higher. But, in general, the American public constrained what the colossal power of the U.S. could do in foreign interventions.

The climate of opinion against intervention, particularly in the post-Vietnam era, affected decisions as much as specific attitudes about U.S. intervention policies or relative approval of presidential handling of crises. To the extent that the post-Vietnam syndrome was represented in the “Weinberger test,” requiring public and congressional support for any U.S. interventions, the opinion climate shaped the impact of public attitudes on decision-making. Opinion shaped policy, too, on contra aid and Bosnia, when in both cases opposition precluded the possibilities of more aggressive policies such as direct U.S. intervention.

While Vietnam set the stage for examining the impact of public opinion, and, notably there, protest on foreign policy, contra aid was the most prominent and lengthy controversy during the post-Vietnam years. As was the case at the end of the Vietnam War, here, too, the public opposed administration policy. The policymakers may have tried to ignore, change, or direct opinion, but public sentiment was undeniably a consistent factor circumscribing their decision-making. The public's opposition to contra aid constrained the administration from pursuing more aggressive or more heavily financed policies. In this case, where congressional votes were a consistent factor, public opinion in congressional districts only loosely constrained representatives' voting, but the legislators were constantly concerned about the potential impact of changing sentiment. By monitoring opinion, the representatives tried to make sure that opinion did not directly constrain their legislative decisions.

The lessons of Vietnam, reiterated in the Powell Doctrine, raised issues of public support for swift, intense, and successful intervention during the Gulf War. But they

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