Thus, it appears the American people are making a distinction that has been fuzzed up for years in the country’s foreign-policy discourse. For them, this isn’t about spreading democracy into the lands of Islam or ridding the world of brutal dictators. It isn’t about macho American global leadership. It is about America’s vital national interests and the protection of its sovereignty and the safety of its citizens. ISIS represents a threat to those things; Middle Eastern dictators who have been the focus of much American foreign-policy agitation in recent years don’t.
The foreign-policy debates of recent years have not zoomed in on this distinction. Most often, the arguments on either side have been characterized as the interventionists vs. the isolationists; or those who want a strong America plying the international waters vs. those who don’t want to expend blood and treasure on maintaining America’s role in the world.
In terms of national sentiment, this has been a bogus debate. The collective judgment of the electorate always has been much more sophisticated and nuanced. There is no doubt that Americans want their country to remain the world’s greatest power. They know that will require at times the expenditure of both human and financial resources. They are willing to absorb that cost. But their experiences since 9/11 have taught them that their leaders, if not monitored closely, are likely to get the country into overseas adventures based on wispy ideas and unrealistic goals that ultimately undermine stability in a dangerous region.