It's obviously a bad idea for the administration to decide whether to jump into a whole new Middle East quagmire based on whether the famously inattentive and uninformed American public thinks it's a good idea. Nevertheless, public opinion is inevitably going to play a role in President Obama's decision-making on this. That isn't to say Obama won't take any particular step unless the polls show the public approves, but any time a politician does something unpopular, he'll always be looking over his shoulder a little bit.
So what do the American people think about the prospect of American military involvement in Syria? The first thing to understand is that they're not paying very much attention to the issue, which means few have given it a great deal of thought. According to a new Pew poll, only 15 percent of the public says they're following the story very closely, a figure that has been basically unchanged over the two years of the civil war there. (Another 30 percent say they're following it "somewhat closely," but I wouldn't put too much stock in that; it's a way of saying to the interviewer, "I've seen some stuff about that, and I'm an informed person.") The second thing to understand is that as it is with any issue, even those on which you'd think people would have firm opinions, the answer you get depends on how you ask the question.
Let's start with two polls that came out yesterday. When Pew asked, "Would you favor or oppose the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to antigovernment groups in Syria?", they got only 20 percent of people saying yes, and there were only small differences between Democrats (25 percent), Republicans (20 percent), and independents (18 percent). Gallup came out with its own poll yesterday, but they mentioned Barack Obama in their question: "Do you approve or disapprove of the Obama administration's decision to supply direct military aid to Syrian rebels fighting against the government in Syria?" That produces a significant partisan alignment: they got 51 percent of Democrats, 33 percent of independents, and 29 percent of Republicans saying yes. Three weeks ago, Gallup asked a question that didn't mention Obama but portrayed the conflict as a worsening problem: "Suppose all economic and diplomatic efforts fail to end the civil war in Syria. If that happens, do you think the United States should or should not use military action to attempt to end the conflict?" This question also didn't say whose side we'd be joining, but the results were similar to the Pew survey, with only 24 percent saying we should use military action, and little difference between people from different parties (with Republicans slightly more likely to endorse action).
What about a question that offers some rationale for us getting involved? This is important because if the administration is going to try to convince the public to get behind whatever it plans to do, it will presumably try to find the most persuasive reasons it can, and the subsequent debate could affect what people think. Obama won't be making the case that the Bush administration did about Iraq, which was that if we didn't invade, this brutal Middle Eastern dictator was going to kill you and your family with his terrifying arsenal of weapons.11 It was a decade ago, so it may be necessary to remind folks that that was indeed what they were saying; for instance, on August 22, 2002, Dick Cheney said in a well-publicized speech, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." He won't be using fear, but Obama can make a moralistic appeal based on Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. I've expressed some skepticism before about whether chemical weapons ought to be in a separate moral category than conventional weapons; in this case, the fact that Assad has killed around 100,000 people with bullets and bombs is far, far worse than the fact that he has killed a couple of hundred with poison gas. But we won't be having a discussion about whether chemical weapons are worse. It's accepted that using them makes you a different kind of monster, and that's why when you introduce the idea in a poll question, you get a different result.
For instance, a Pew poll from April asked, "If it is confirmed that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against anti-government groups, would you favor or oppose the US and its allies taking military action against the Syrian government?" That got 45 percent saying yes and 31 percent saying no. Now we're getting toward a majority. What if you get a little more vivid, and instead of saying he's using the chemical weapons against "anti-government groups" but against civilians? A CNN poll from April didjust that: "If the United States were able to present evidence that convinced you that the Syrian government has chemical weapons and has used them to kill civilians in that country, do you think the U.S. would or would not be justified in using military action against the Syrian government?" It found a full 66 percent saying the U.S. would be justified in taking military action, which is not exactly the same thing as saying they U.S. should take military action, but it still looks like broad support.
So what you have are polls that show support for some kind of military action in Syria ranging from 20 percent all the way up to 66 percent. What does that mean for the Obama administration? They'd probably look at all these results and say that while the public starts out pretty skeptical of any kind of military involvement in Syria, you can get them to go along, at least for a while, if you make the right argument.