“They should know we will follow them to the gates of hell.”
“The long-term challenge is debilitating and ultimately eradicating a strong and growing ISIS.”
“The president should have weaponized the moderate Syrian rebels earlier.”
“Thousands of Russian troops are here [in Ukraine] with tanks, missiles, heavy artillery, and are directly engaged in what is clearly an invasion. We should be providing the Ukrainians with the type of defensive weapons that will impose a cost upon Putin.”
These quotes come from, in order, Vice President Joe Biden, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez. This isn’t the sort of talk one hears from people who are “weary of war.” But neither are these politicians who are neocon war-hawks; these are centrist Democrats and Paul, of course, is a libertarian Republican who flirts with neo-isolationism.
To The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, the spectacular beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff has touched the honor culture of America’s “Jacksonians,” as Walter Russell Mead calls them, taking Andrew Jackson as the paradigm. Beinart admits that “Obama has always had trouble with Jacksonians, who tend to live outside cities and be older white, and less educated than Obama’s political base.”
But the Jacksonian tradition is not simply the purview of populist, angry-white-man politics, it’s a trait that’s deeply encoded across the mainstream; it’s more “Old Hickory” than “King Mob.” When Al Franken is taking the administration to task for its weakness in regard to the Islamic State, it’s a sign that something larger is afoot.
Which brings us back to the weary-of-war trope, which has been the most unexamined assumption of the past decade. The question is: If Americans were really so sick of fighting, why are they now so belligerent, even vengeful?
The most recent set of Rasmussen polls reflect an amazing and rapid shift in sentiment. The polls measure this in a handful of ways, but perhaps the most striking is the reaction to renewed U.S. military engagement in Iraq. Back in December, when Iraq was still George Bush’s “dumb war,” 71 percent of those polled opposed deeper American commitment there; that number is now down to 41 percent, and another 29 percent are “undecided.” What was once toxic is now tolerable, and increasingly trending favorable.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, despite constant encouragement by the president, congressional leaders and the media, war-weariness was never as broadly or deeply felt in the country as supposed. And the shift in polls now is less a spurt of anger at ISIS atrocities than a return to the traditional belief in the need for and morality of American strength. This is too large a trend to be an expression of the Jacksonian class – who, as Beinart says, have never much cared for the president – it’s a measure of the Jacksonian strain in us all.
At the same time, polling trends to not necessarily translate into larger political shifts. Outside of John McCain or Lindsey Graham, the Jacksonian strain lacks much of a voice these days. And not even those two red-meat-eaters seem to have the stomach for more than an airstrikes-plus-proxies strategy in Iraq and Syria. But if you’re serious about “eradicating” ISIS or following them to the gates of hell – at least before Judgment Day – you must be prepared to commit U.S. land forces beyond special operating forces with laser designators and satellite radios. This time, a replay of Operation Enduring Freedom needs to be, well, enduring.
Nonetheless, our neuralgia over the use of military power seems to be abating. All that remains is for a leader to seize the Jacksonian day.