How Obama Can Convince a Skeptical American Public on Syria
Iraq is the new Vietnam. It is the specter that now hangs over any discussion of U.S. military intervention, the cautionary tale repeated whenever an American president appears to be contemplating military force too readily. Indeed, it is this spirit that President Barack Obama has been trying to exorcise as he attempts to build support for a strike against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the difficulty he faces is that Iraq’s lasting impact on the American political landscape has less to do with specific military lessons and more to do with altering the interests of domestic political blocs, as reflected in changes to public opinion.
Last year’s Transatlantic Trends survey, the first to ask about intervention in Syria, found a broad majority within the United States opposed to any sort of military action: 55% of respondents said that the United States should stay out completely, while only 35% believed it should intervene. This majority, however, was not a monolith but an amalgamation of smaller groups, with their opposition grounded in a diverse set of core interests. Democrats were more likely to support intervention than Republicans – 42%, compared to 34% – but each side appeared skeptical for its own reasons. Democrats and independents, who felt that intervening in Iraq had been the wrong choice, were staunchly opposed to action in Syria. So were Republicans who disapproved of Obama’s foreign policy in general. Not surprisingly, support for intervention was also low among those who wanted to see cuts in defense spending. And respondents who were optimistic about future stability in Syria were also unlikely to favor immediate intervention.
These vastly differing views present a dilemma for Obama. How could he address these disparate concerns and build domestic support more effectively? First, opinion on the responsibility to protect civilians from violence carried out by their own government was one of the strongest predictors of an American’s view of Syria. The responsibility to protect was, in fact, surprisingly popular – 62% endorsed it overall – and represents firmer ground for Americans than a more abstract case for intervention grounded in the preservation of international law or in U.S. regional interests. Those who believed such a responsibility exists were evenly divided, with 46% saying the United States should intervene and 46% saying it should not. Among those who did not believe in such a responsibility to protect, 75% would prefer that the United States stay out of Syria entirely. Obama could also emphasize parallels with the intervention in Libya, rather than the one in Iraq.
Democrats last year were not only more amenable to intervention than Republicans, they were much more likely to feel that the American involvement in the Libyan campaign was a success. 52% described intervening in Libya as the right thing to do, as opposed to 43% who felt the same about intervening in Iraq. If the administration anticipates a limited engagement, one that does not place boots on the ground, Libya would be more the more appropriate comparison and far less likely to generate resistance. Finally, Obama could link events in Syria to broader efforts to manage nuclear negotiations with Iran. Americans who were very concerned about the threat posed by Iran were nearly 15% more likely to support intervention in Syria.
There is a connection that Americans understand between the two, whether due to Iran ally Hezbollah’s support for the Assad government or the implications of a loss of regional credibility. The more the administration discusses Syria’s place in the context of Iran’s nuclear program and its potentially destabilizing consequences, the harder it is for opponents of intervention to argue that events there are not an American problem. This year’s Transatlantic Trends survey on intervention in Syria indicates that support for intervention dropped even further. 62% of Americans are now opposed to intervention, while only 30% are in favor, and Obama has lost ground largely among Democrats. There is still time to build a coalition behind military action, but the president may have to recalibrate his pitch dramatically.
Josh Raisher is a Program Coordinator for Transatlantic Trends with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. Research assistance by Bridget Parker.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.