In This Review
Public Opinion in U.S. Foreign Policy: The Controversy over Contra Aid

Public Opinion in U.S. Foreign Policy: The Controversy over Contra Aid

Edited by Richard Sobel

Rowman, 1993, 240 pp.

It is by now conventional wisdom that foreign and domestic policy are so interwoven that the parochial concerns of the latter almost always overwhelm dispassionate decision and implementation in the former. This detailed study of the controversy over U.S. aid to the contras sets much of this orthodoxy on its head. As this book demonstrates, public opinion was consistently opposed to funding the contras, yet the Reagan administration, and often the Congress, regularly approved contra aid. Far from constraining policy, the hostility of public opinion drove policy-making into the dark back rooms of the bureaucracy with disastrous consequences for the reputations of many of those involved. Editor Richard Sobel argues that Congress, in particular, could afford to be unresponsive to public opinion because the issue was never salient enough for the public to focus on, and that there is little evidence that the opinions held by the public had any direct bearing on how members of Congress voted.

Overall, this book contains a sophisticated series of detailed studies, including a dissection of the domestic politics of contra aid, an analysis of the public diplomacy aimed at garnering public support of the administrations policy, an investigation of the role of lobbying and lobbyists, and a review of the relationship between the legislative and executive branches in the Nicaragua controversies. Everett C. Ladd argues in his foreword that in many ways this book refutes the notion that the American public's attitudes towards U.S. foreign policy bounce wildly and meaninglessly and lack intellectual structure. On the contrary, the public brings deep underlying values and assessments, even when ill-informed about the specifics. Ladd believes the lesson of the contra episode is that politicians in a democracy should not abandon their own moral and intellectual judgments.

The editor has incorporated the views of both scholars and participants in the contra debate and has produced a remarkable contribution of broad relevance to those who make and implement U.S. foreign policy.