American Public Oddly Reasonable on Syrian War

When public opinion is running against the position you've taken on something, it's natural to conclude either that the people just haven't yet heard your argument clearly, or even that opinion doesn't matter. And in one sense, it doesn't. If you're right, you're right, even if most Americans disagree. Not long ago, most Americans had a problem with people of different races to get married; they were wrong about that even if they were in the majority.

Of course, that's a matter of substance, which is distinct from matters of politics, which can constrain your behavior whether you're substantively in the right or not. So I wonder what Barack Obama thinks of public opinion on Syria these days. I doubt that he's like George W. Bush, who was forever certain that "history" would judge the Iraq War to be a smashing success. By now Obama may have concluded that he'll probably never win the public over on this question, so he should just try to move things along as best he can.

There's a new Washington Post/ABC News poll out today that, despite some rather poor numbers, could give him a bit of solace. Though his approval ratings are as mediocre as they've been for a long time now and his approval on Syria specifically is even lower, that seems to be mostly because Americans remain utterly unconvinced that a bombing campaign—the thing he's been trying to convince them to support for the last few weeks—is a good idea. But you know what they just love? The new agreement with Russia to try to remove the Syrian government's chemical weapon stockpiles. Not only do 79 percent of Americans approve of it, that includes 86 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents, and 71 percent of Republicans. They're not sure it'll work (only 29 percent expressed confidence that Assad would give up all his weapons) but they want to try anyway. A Pew poll asking the question a slightly different way found that 67 percent said they supported the diplomatic initiative.

That's despite all the Republican bleating that Vladimir Putin got the upper hand, and that even though when Barack Obama was advocating a bombing campaign they thought it was a terrible idea, now that there probably isn't going to be a bombing campaign they're disappointed (I suspect they would rather if 1) Obama wasn't president, so 2) we could just have a war and feel good about it).

It's almost enough to make you think the public doesn't care whether the president "looks weak," or whether he's been insufficiently "decisive," or whether he "flip-flopped," or whether John Kerry's suggestion that got the negotiations rolling was planned, or whether Putin might get some of the credit. As far as they're concerned, if it means we might get rid of those chemical weapons without dropping a bunch of bombs and getting further sucked into this civil war, that's actually—and listen closely here—a good thing.

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