Opinion: Does Biden benefit if foreign policy dominates the 2024 campaign?

Conventional wisdom suggests Americans know little about foreign policy and care about it even less. Opinion polls regularly show that international issues take a back seat to topics more prosaic (economics, education) or provocative (culture wars, gun control).

Next year’s presidential election, however, might be a bit different. Continued international crises could focus attention on the benefits and burdens of American global leadership, and our polarized politics may turn on battles and events far from home. We might experience the rare phenomenon: a foreign policy election.

Israel’s war against Hamas has become a domestic political focal point, either praised as a righteous campaign of self-defense or criticized for bringing humanitarian catastrophe to Gaza. Some experts now believe Ukraine’s war aims are “out of reach,” and call on Washington to encourage Ukraine to pursue a cease-fire.

One might think a president with Joe Biden’s experience would perform well in a foreign policy election. So it’s surprising that his approach to the wars in Gaza and Ukraine — an approach he doubled down on in a recent op-ed that touted the U.S. as “the essential nation,” worried about Russian leader Vladimir “Putin’s drive for conquest” and reduced Hamas’ motives to “murderous nihilism” — instead appears to be endangering his reelection.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and the president’s nearly unconditional support for Israel’s response have brought to a boil the simmering divisions within the Democratic Party on the issue of Palestinians. Many young, diverse and progressive voters are critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the “open-air prison” of Gaza. They believe the Gaza war is unjust and disproportionate.

Fully 70% of U.S. voters under age 35 disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war, according to a Nov. 19 NBC News poll. Other polls show that a majority of young voters do not support sending weapons to Israel, and less than half of Gen Z and millennials even want the U.S. to publicly voice support for Israel as the president has so consistently done. The issue could tip the scale in the crucial swing states, such as Michigan, where razor-thin margins of victory are common.

Support for Israel has been uncontroversial for most of Biden’s political career. A decade ago, a pro-Israel lobbyist described his work to me as “pushing against an open door.” But as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved to the right and threatened Israel’s democratic institutions, he has infuriated many Israelis and tested the patience of otherwise sympathetic Americans — including many American Jews. Today, Washington’s pro-Israel lobby is dominated by evangelical Christians in the Republican Party base, borne by what one commentator called “solidarity with a particularly aggressive strain of Zionism.”

Democrats have sweated the electoral consequences of being seen as insufficiently pro-Israel since before it was even a country. In 1947, as the United Nations considered recognizing a Jewish state, President Truman’s general counsel, Clark Clifford, penned a private memo to his boss: “Unless the Palestine matter is boldly and favorably handled, there is bound to be some defection on [Jewish voters’] part to the alert [GOP nominee Thomas E.] Dewey.” Unlike Truman, Biden has to contend with a voting Middle Eastern diaspora, new human rights norms and mass media capable of relaying round-the-clock images of Palestinian suffering.

Apart from the Israel-Hamas war, a foreign policy election would present Biden with other fresh challenges. In broad terms, independent voters don’t seem to share Democrats’ — and the president’s — expansive view of the purpose of American power.

A survey released in October by the Institute for Global Affairs at the Eurasia Group found that Republicans and independents, when asked what the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy should be, chose “to protect America from foreign threats and stop other countries from taking advantage of the U.S.” Democrats, on the other hand, chose “to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law across the globe as the leader of the free world.”

When House Republicans recently cut Ukraine funding from a plan to keep the government running, they elicited howls from some Democrats about “abandoning” Ukraine. But independents aren’t howling. The survey shows that many share Republicans’ skepticism of alliances, concern over diminishing weapons stockpiles and desire to withdraw U.S. troops stationed in Europe.

In other words, independents echo the rhetoric of Donald Trump more than that of Joe Biden. The president has lately dialed down his trumpeting of a worldwide “battle between democracy and autocracy.” Perhaps his campaign realized this resonated with those inclined to vote for him anyway, and could fail to win over swing voters.

Historically, a foreign policy election benefits the incumbent. During the Cold War, politics were said to stop at the water’s edge, as Americans sought to show the world a united front. International crises often generated a “rally ’round the flag” effect for leaders seen as taking decisive action.

However, voters today don’t agree on the dangers the U.S. faces, let alone the best way to address them. Republicans’ greatest perceived threat — immigration threatens the country’s national identity — ranked last among Democrats on our survey. Climate -change-induced natural disasters were seen as the top threat among Democrats, but the second-to-last among Republicans.

Political leaders can usually be forgiven for not heeding the public’s foreign policy preferences. Voters can be capricious or ill-informed, and expertise is crucial for foreign policy decision-making. But if foreign crises continue to focus Americans’ attention next year, Biden ignores their views at his peril.

Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Affairs at the Eurasia Group and the host of its “None of the Above” podcast.

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