Obama Administration Failing (So Far) to Convince the Public On Syria

We're just beginning to embark on something we only do every few years: have a real, national debate on whether we should start another war. Okay, so this isn't a full-scale war, at least not from our end; to hear the administration tell it, the whole thing could be over in a day or two. But Congress will be officially coming back into session on Monday, and at that point they'll be talking about little else for a couple of weeks. It'll be dominating the news, unless a young singer horrifies the nation by dancing suggestively, requiring us all to drop what we're doing and lament the debased state of America's moral fiber.

So far anyway, it's pretty clear that most Americans don't think a military strike against Syria is a good idea. That in itself is unusual; you'd expect at the very least to see a closely divided public. The problem the administration confronts is that there seems to be no one unambiguously in favor of this action. Democrats otherwise inclined to support the President are the very people who don't like foreign military adventures and were particularly disgusted by what happened the last time the government decided there was an awful dictator in the Middle East who had to be dealt with. And the Republicans otherwise favorably inclined toward a jolly good bombing campaign every now and again are the very people who can hardly bear the thought of supporting Barack Obama on anything. Members of Congress are reporting that the calls, emails, and conversations they're having with constituents are running almost exclusively against a strike.

That, of course is an imperfect measure of public opinion, but the better measures are showing much the same thing. As always, you get somewhat different answers depending on how you ask the question, but no matter how you ask it, you can't get a majority of Americans saying we should strike Syria. The Washington Post asks, "The United States says it has determined that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in the civil war there. Given this, do you support or oppose the United States launching missile strikes against the Syrian government?" Thirty-six percent say they support a strike, and 59 percent say they oppose it. The Pew Research Center asks, "Would you favor or oppose the U.S. conducting military airstrikes against Syria in response to reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons?" Twenty-nine percent say they support airstrikes, 48 percent say they're opposed, and the rest are unsure. The Economist/YouGov poll asks, "Should the U.S. engage in military action to punish they Syrian government for using chemical weapons or should it stay out of the conflict?" Twenty percent say yes, 57 percent say no, and 23 percent are unsure.

So even if you wouldn't want to put one precise number on Americans' support for a military strike, it's substantially less than a majority. The next question is, is that likely to change? There are still a lot of people who have heard only a little about this issue and haven't given it any thought. Over the next few weeks more and more of them will be exposed to arguments on both sides. And this may be one of the rare occasions where, after a period of intense news coverage and debate, ordinary people may be perfectly able to render a decision. You don't need more than a rudimentary understanding of the situation in Syria to know where you stand, mostly because of the way the administration has already circumscribed its options and the actions it is willing to undertake. Unlike in Iraq, people don't have to wonder what would happen if the U.S. invaded and booted Assad from power, because we won't be doing that (unless the administration is planning to have one of those missiles hit Assad, despite what they've said).

People who today find it hard to decide where they stand aren't likely to find clarity the more they learn, because the dilemmas of this situation are so fundamental. In fact, learning more could make it even harder to decide what the right thing to do is. You could come to understand the horror of the Assad regime's actions, but also learn about how complex the rebellion is, and how many of the factions are pretty awful themselves. At the end of that process a lot of people could well throw up their hands and conclude that there's nothing the U.S. can do that will improve things one way or the other.

But how much does public opinion matter? The Obama administration is going to try as hard as they can to win public support for a strike, but in the end they're going to do what they're going to do whether it's supported by 60 percent, 40 percent, or 10 percent of the public. And they could well be saying to themselves that since the strike they're planning is so limited in scope and duration—we're talking about a series of missile strikes that lasts a few days at most, not a war that drags on for ten years—even if the public hates the idea, it'll be over soon and everyone will move on.

The public may be wisely prudent, or it may be temporarily deluded; don't forget that after the Bush administration's pre-Iraq-War propaganda campaign, about two-thirds of the American people were on board. And substantively, intervening in the way the administration wants is either right or wrong (morally and strategically), whether the public is convinced or not.

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