Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal was in line with Americans’ decade-long bipartisan reticence toward interventionism
by David Wingens (class of ‘23)
In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the time had come for America to withdraw from its years-long war in Afghanistan. In justifying the withdrawal, he pointedly claimed that America’s “reasons for staying have become increasingly unclear.” The question this raises is, when exactly did American citizens realize that our reasons for staying were so muddled? Or in other words, how has public opinion on the main justifications for war given by U.S. presidents changed over the course of the last couple decades.
Using data from Cooperative Elections Surveys from 2008 to 2020, it is possible to track how opinion has changed from Joe Biden’s start as Vice President inheriting an already-old war until his election as President when he inherited that same war twelve years down the road.
The CES has asked a battery of questions since 2008 asking respondent if they would support the use of military force given a range of preconditions from assisting the spread of democracy to protecting U.S. allies under attack. These questions are vague enough to avoid asking about specific administration policies but go a long way in explaining what Americans thought of the justifications for war being actively used by various presidents and measuring the hawkishness of the American public.
Generally, Americans were slightly less likely to say that they would approve the use of military force in 2020 than in 2008. On the question of assisting the spread of democracy, which is the issue on which there has been the most movement, respondents were most hawkish in 2008, with a steep drop-off between 2008 and 2010. Support reached its nadir in 2016, garnering support from just over 15% of respondents. Over the course of the Trump presidency, the numbers rose back to over 20% support, coming quite close to pre-Obama levels.
The drop from 2008 to 2016 makes a lot of sense, as Americans were getting tired of fighting wars abroad for poorly defined goals like spreading democracy. It is not clear why the number rose significantly in 2020, but it may have to do with the fact that this spreading democracy has lost its place in the political zeitgeist, so respondents have less of a reflexively negative reaction.
Turning to partisanship reveals a more nuanced story about the way public opinion is moving. In 2008, as George Bush was concluding his time in the West Wing, Americans were deeply divided over the use of military force. This is true across the board, as Republicans were consistently more hawkish. It seems that they were relatively supportive of the approach taken by the Bush administration and saw America as having wide latitude to support democracy across the globe.
Democrats, opposing President Bush, and ready to herald in the presidency of a harsh critic of Bush-era policies in Barack Obama were far more reserved in what they viewed as America’s military role in world affairs. This divide is perhaps best seen in the gulf between Democratic and Republican respondents on the question of assisting the spread of democracy — a goal main of the war on terror.
In 2008, just before Obama’s presidency, Republicans were already skeptical of the Bush-era doctrine of “spreading democracy,” with only 40 percent of them thinking it appropriate to use the military to those ends. Still, that marked a stark departure from Democrats, for whom spreading democracy as a justification for activating the military only about 14% support.
Soon, however, public opinion shifted in an unexpected way. Republican and Democratic opinion began to converge. As a Democratic president took office, Democrats became very slightly more sympathetic to the idea of spreading Democracy, while Republican support plummeted in the post-Bush era. The most dramatic shift took place just after Bush’s presidency, as the Republican party was taken over by tea-party Republicans whose libertarian streaks may have made them more skeptical of foreign intervention. At the same time, Republicans, even those not sympathetic to the tea party, may have lost the sense of a partisan imperative to “cheerlead” the Bush’s policies as he was no longer in office.
Even after the initial fall, Republicans view of spreading democracy as a justification for war continued to decline steadily, to the point where Republicans viewed the issue less favorably than Democrats by the end of Obama’s presidency.
Over the course of the Trump presidency, something equally fascinating happened. In a political era defined by partisanship, the two parties have seemingly converged on one position: neither party thinks that war for the sake of spreading democracy is a good idea. The number climbed a bit among both parties from 2016 to 2020, but it remains a definite minority across the board.
Interestingly, spreading democracy seems to be in a league of its own in terms of partisan convergence. Approval of military to destroy a terrorist camp, a question that gets much more support than spreading democracy, shows a toned down version of the post-Bush trends seen in the previous chart, but over time its sizable partisan divide hardly shrinks at all.
In deciding to end the war in Afghanistan, Joe Biden’s policy seems to be in line with the bipartisan opinion that spreading democracy is not the job of the American military. Simultaneously, he is appealing to his own party’s more dovish approach to foreign policy. By all accounts, such a policy should have been broadly popular. Still, however, he was met with heavy skepticism and the withdrawal from Afghanistan is undoubtedly among the most contentious policy decision of Biden’s time in office. Joe Biden seemingly failed to capitalize on an important convergence in public opinion. Whether this is because of perceived incompetence in managing the withdrawal or the inevitability of partisanship’s effect on any policy position is unclear.
For more on what the CES can tell us about the gulf between opinions on broad questions and specific policy, look for Jacob Kirsch’s post dissecting these very same questions more granularly from the 2020 CES.