The Politics of Cynicism

Machiavelli would be proud of President Obama.  This administration has revealed itself as highly cynical, dedicated to winning re-election at the expense of rational debate on Afghanistan, or the serious consideration of public opposition to war.  Machiavelli was famous, among other things, for his pioneering of a belief in amoral politics – the commitment to gaining power at the expense of standing for any larger principals or for the promotion of the public good.  Obama has behaved similarly, as a close review of his pro-war rhetoric and actions demonstrate.

Much of Obama’s West Point speech consisted of incoherent, Orwellian doublethink.  Obama celebrated the “legitimate government [that] was elected by the Afghan people,” while patronizing the government as being “hampered by corruption.”  He promised that the U.S. has “no interest in occupying [Afghanistan],” while escalating an unpopular counterinsurgency that most Afghans feel will directly harm them.  Obama explained that “America seeks an end to this war and suffering” and “has no interest in fighting an endless war,” yet sent 48,000 troops to continue a violent, destabilizing counterinsurgency campaign with no concrete end in sight.

Progressive journalists and scholars level many criticisms at the Obama plan.  Critics seize on the administration’s own damning estimate that just 100 al Qaeda are currently operating in Afghanistan, and question the seeming ridiculousness of sending 100,000 troops to defeat such a small target.  Critics also draw attention to the imminent humanitarian consequences of the escalation.  As a social movement, the Taliban operates on many levels throughout the Pashtun Helmand province, and there is realistically no way to separate it from the people of the region’s people by engaging in “surgical,” “precision” bombing.  Civilians will inevitably bear the brunt of the punishment from U.S. bombings, as has happened with the predator drone strikes on “terrorist targets” in Pakistan.

On the level of procedural criticisms, the Obama administration has demonstrated little critical insight into how to evaluate when this conflict will, or should end.  Obama’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, explained that “success” in this campaign will be measured by intangible standards.  Success, Holbrooke concluded, will be decided by a “Supreme Court test,” where “we’ll know [progress] when we see it.”  Holbrooke’s comment draws specifically on the statement of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who attempted to establish standards for identifying “hard core” pornography and obscenity: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced, but I know it when I see it.”

U.S. involvement in Afghanistan begins to look like less than a sincere effort to rebuild the country and help it transition away from its failed state status when Obama himself publicly admits that nation building is out of the question, since it goes “beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost.”  The Obama administration also has not been honest with the American public about the state of Afghanistan’s national army and police forces.  Democrats loudly pronounce the importance of training Afghan security forces, while remaining silent on the pragmatic and substantive problems with this task.  On the pragmatic level, as Time magazine reports, “the president’s West Point speech was mute on his plans for the growing Afghan army, which remains the best way to bring home American personnel.”  As Al Jazeera English reports, Obama failed to discuss the official overestimates of the status of Afghanistan’s military and police.  While traditional estimates suggest that Afghanistan retains 90-100,000 standing forces, critical estimates put the real size at no more than 55,000, to as low as 35-40,000.  As James Bayes of Al Jazeera reports from Kabul: “the whole exit strategy for international troops depends on the size and the capability of Afghan security forces.  It is clear after eight years that both the U.S. and Afghan government don’t even know how many soldiers and policemen there really are.”

On the level of substantive and moral criticisms, the Obama administration has not leveled with the American public about the serious human rights atrocities of the U.S. bombing campaign – which has killed thousands of civilians – and of U.S.-supported Afghan national forces.  While publicly celebrating the U.S. commitment to promoting humanitarianism, democracy, and counter-terror, Obama quietly supports a terrorist police force in the Helmand province that is “linked to the local warlord, [and] has committed systematic abuses against the population, including the abduction and rape of pre-teen boys, according to village elders” (see Gareth Porter’s excellent piece: “A Bigger Problem than the Taliban?” Inter Press Service).

The full extent of Obama’s cynical, Machiavellian politics is evident after asking a few simple questions: 1. Out of all the possible dates, why set a timetable for withdrawal beginning in July of 2011?; and  2. Why immediately contradict that timetable, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did, by claiming immediately after Obama’s West Point speech that withdrawal dates will be determined by “conditions on the ground” in Afghanistan?

The answers to these questions are obvious: these statements provide the Democrats with an extremely flexible timetable which will allow them to react to public opinion and conditions in Washington (related to Afghanistan and the escalation) in time for the 2012 presidential election.  If the war is publicly perceived as having hurt Obama’s re-election chances, discussion will emerge about the need to reduce troops, with Democrats portraying themselves as the “anti-war” party against the pro-war Republicans.  If Republicans are effective in convincing Americans of the need to remain in Afghanistan and that a drawdown demonstrates American weakness and poses a national security risk, Democrats will enjoy maximum maneuverability to continue the war and occupation, and perhaps even add more troops.  The advantage to keeping all options open goes like this: Democrats, who are scared to death of being seen as weak on national security, can “out-hawk” the hawks in the Republican Party.  After all, why elect a Republican to the White House on the grounds that he/she is strong on national security when the Democrats are already pursuing the same strategy supported by a Republican candidate?

The cynicism of the Obama administration’s strategy is in no way unique to American politics.  Scholars have documented the attempts of political officials to manipulate public opinion (rather than to implement it) in their formulation of public policy.  In their book, Politicians Don’t Pander, Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro find that “politicians manipulate public opinion by tracking public thinking to select the actions and words that resonate with the public.”  Politicians don’t identify what the public thinks so that they can implement the popular will; rather they try to change public opinion to fit a pre-existing policy.  Jacobs and Shapiro quote Republican and Democratic pollsters who represent Congress and the White House, admitting that they “don’t use a poll to reshape a [public] program, but to reshape your argumentation for the program so that the public supports it.”

The Obama administration can’t afford to be ignorant about the state of public opinion on foreign policy.  Studies confirm that presidents have always followed what the public is thinking.  During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968 due to his low public popularity.  Johnson closely followed public opinion polls on Vietnam during the U.S. escalation, as did Richard Nixon when he took office.  As Lyndon’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy admitted about the administration’s knowledge of public opinion: “It’s ninety percent of the people who don’t want any part of this” war.  Nixon similarly admitted that “democracies are not well equipped to fight prolonged wars.”  Public resistance inevitably develops as politicians’ promises of victory begin to conflict with the reality that prolonged occupation is accompanied by bloody violence, misery, and destruction.  As public opinion scholar Richard Sobel concludes about Vietnam: “as the shift in opinion around [the 1968] Tet [offensive] helped drive LBJ to deescalate, declining public support ultimately forced an end to the conflict at the start of Nixon’s second term…though most policymakers would have preferred more latitude [in conducting the war], they recognized that public opinion and protest limited the decisions they could take.”

Political officials in the post-Vietnam era have learned that the public has the power to pro-actively limit militaristic policy planning.  The Reagan administration was unable to use direct military force against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas due to public opposition to use of U.S. troops (and even opposition to use of proxy troops) in a terrorist war against the government and people of Nicaragua.  George H. W. Bush also learned that the public would not support long-term occupation of Iraq, as a “Vietnam Syndrome” ensured that there was little tolerance for open-ended conflicts marked by uncertainty, high cost, and tremendous destruction.  George W. Bush ignored this lesson at his peril in committing to a long-term occupation in Iraq, as his administration suffered the lowest levels of confidence in public opinion polls in the post-World War II era.  Obama originally gained much support from the public by promising to end the Iraq war, although his credentials as an “anti-war” president are difficult to take seriously in light of the Afghan escalation.

There are remarkable similarities between the Reagan and Obama administrations in terms of their attempts to manipulate the American public.  In attempting to sell U.S. support for the Contra guerilla terrorists in their war on Nicaragua, former Regan Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliot Abrams remarked that U.S. public opinion polls on Nicaragua were seen as “weapons” to be used against the public.  “The polls could not tell us what policy ought to be.  We had a policy.  We arrived in office with a policy.  Over time tactics changed but the fundamental policy did not change.”  Abrams admits that the “importance of public opinion” in terms of influencing U.S. policy was “relatively low.  It was not a direct constraint” in pressuring the administration to abandon its war on the Sandinista government.  J. Edward Fox, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs reflects: “the real objective [in Nicaragua] was not to seek a favorable referendum by the American public to guide our policy in the region, but to figure out ways to tap public sentiment to support what we were already doing…public opinion has not been a major influence in foreign policy debates.  Historically they have been dominated by elites.”

As with Nicaragua, the Obama administration had a pre-existing policy – support for escalation – that stood in contrast with public opposition to war.  As with Reagan, Obama also had two choices in his decision making on Afghanistan.  He could choose to take public opinion seriously – which showed that a majority of Americans opposed the continuation of the war as of mid-to-late 2009 – or he could disregard public opinion and seek to manipulate the public will.  Obama chose the latter, making the case in early December for escalating what was, and remains to a lesser extent, an unpopular war.  This approach appears to have paid off, at least in the short term, as a Quinnipiac poll from this month found that support for war increased by nine percent in the last three weeks, and following Obama’s speech.  While more than six in ten Americans felt the Afghan war was going “fairly or very badly” as of late 2009, the percent of Americans who “oppose” the war fell by seven percent from October to December of this year, while those who “favor” war increased by six percent, according to CNN polls.  Framing of the conflict is key in manipulating public sentiment.  CNN polling found that public 58 percent of Americans opposed the war in September of 2009 when asked generically if “you favor or oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan?”  When framed in terms of eventual withdrawal, however, public support for escalation became more supportive.  A USA Today/Gallup poll from December of 2009 finds that 51 percent of Americans support the Obama plan for war when the question is preceded by the statement that “Obama has decided to increase the number of U.S. troops…while also setting a timetable that calls for the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops from that country in 2011.”  It should be noted that, for the Machiavellian cynic, this approach retains the advantage of enabling escalation while paying lip service to public support for withdrawal.

The long term prognosis for Obama’s escalation does not look good.  While Obama may have squeaked out bare majority support for war as of December (remember the 51 percent figure from Gallup), lessons of the past suggest that Obama’s credibility will dramatically decline as the war continues throughout 2010 and 2011.  Increasing financial cost of war (especially during recessions), in addition to growing U.S. military casualties and the violent destabilization of occupied countries, are major historically major causes for growing public opposition to war.  All of these conditions are likely to materialize as this conflict escalates, and as Democrats begin lose their grip over Congress and the White House.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches American and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010).  He can be reached at

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.