Libyan rebels recently broke through a Qaddafi government blockade on their approach to Tripoli, as opposition forces across the country mount an aggressive resurgence amid an intensified NATO air campaign. According to recent opinion polls, however, rebel success has not translated into an increase in American public support for the war. This is indicative of a growing isolationist sentiment espoused by the U.S. public.
According to a new Rasmussen Reports survey, just 26 percent of likely United States voters feel that the U.S. should continue to engage in military action in Libya. Meanwhile, 42 percent are opposed and 32 percent remain undecided on the issue. As Congress ponders the merits of executive unilateralism in Libya, the survey found that 59 percent of voters believe that President Obama should seek the approval of Congress if he plans to continue U.S. military action in the country. The number marks a jump in support for congressional authorization from when President Obama initially committed U.S. military resources to the Libyan mission in mid-March. The increase is not just reflective of public opinion on the powers of the executive, but is evidence of a growing sentiment of isolationism in the U.S.
The June 10 Pew Research Center poll provides evidence that Americans are becoming more isolationist. Indeed, the center reports that the present assessment of isolationist sentiment is the highest recorded in over four decades. There are other indications of the public’s reservations on American engagement in the world. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed declare it is more important for President Obama to engage with U.S. domestic policy, a stark contrast to the 9 percent who state that the president should focus more on foreign policy.
Whether this trend can be partially attributed to skepticism about achieving success in the “war on terror” or to domestic economic turmoil, the repercussions of an isolationist streak are considerable. It would be damaging for the current public sentiment to push the U.S. to fully extricate itself from humanitarian intervention and bold policies amid the havoc of the Arab Spring. Engaging with Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, etc. is necessary and fundamental, as it allows the United States to be an active participant in shaping a friendlier Middle East, in line with democratic values and stability.
In order to combat the trend of American isolationism and salvage public support for the mission in Libya, President Obama must stage an immediate reversal from his approach implemented at the outset, one characterized by ambiguity and inconsistency. Indeed, the president must now present clear and consistent objectives on the direction that the war is heading. In the manner of the congressional resolution sponsored by House Speaker John Boehner and his subsequent written warning released Tuesday, which directs the president to explain the United States’ purpose in Libya, President Obama must engage in a candid dialogue with Congress and the public.
If the administration had articulated a coherent approach and unambiguous justification from the outset, it is reasonable to assume that the poll numbers on Libya would look significantly more promising.