Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In a first, virtually all Americans oppose blowing up another country

Well, that's unexpected:
As Secretary of State John Kerry made the Obama administration’s most forceful statement yet on Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll finds just 9 percent of Americans supporting intervention in Syria with about 60 percent opposed. As Max Fisher notes, this means intervention is even less popular among American than Congress. . . . By contrast, 47 percent of Americans supported the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011, which Talking Points Memo noted at the time was the “lowest level of support for an American military campaign in at least 30 years.” 76 percent of American initially supported the Iraq War, 90 percent supported U.S. action in Afghanistan in 2001.
Nine percent?!  Nine percent of Americans will agree to just about anything.  More than nine percent of Americans believe in witchcraft.

To me, this level of support is almost inexplicably low. Obviously, the country's recently had some bad experiences meddling in the Middle East, but the most salient comparison, the bombing campaign in Libya, actually went quite well.  It's true that all the evidence suggests that an attack on Syria would be harder to manage--I, for one, supported the Libyan action but have much more mixed feelings about the present situation.  Still, it's hard to believe that the average American has a sophisticated opinion about the relative challenges posed by the two operations--or, for that matter, an opinion that extends beyond "Hey, I heard some bad business is going down."

That in turn suggests to me that such a crazily low number is, at least partially, an artifact of partisan signaling.  A public generally ignorant of the particulars of the situation would be especially reliant on elite viewpoints to shape their own; right now, whether for reasons diplomatic or political, no one in the government is really openly discussing all the military options that are surely on the table.  If Obama or the GOP starts talking up a bombing campaign, I'd expect support to rise rapidly.

Nonetheless, this poll has also got to make Assad feel better about his current predicament, seeing as how any US politician would be reluctant to support a military action that's probably slightly less popular than strip-mining Mount Rushmore.

But before he gets too comfortable, it's worth looking at the other numbers in the quote above.  Support for Iraq and Afghanistan were quite high, but both turned out to be politically pretty disastrous.  Support for Libya was historically low--much lower than for Bush's two wars--but there's really no evidence the campaign to remove Qaddafi has harmed Obama to any measurable degree.  At the end of the day, it's not public opinion before a military operation that counts, it's public opinion afterwards.  Successful execution is still the best way to win people over.  So while the Reuters poll is startling and sure to catch the eye of any national politician, it would be a mistake for the administration to lose sight of the only two factors that really matter: figuring out whether taking action is necessary, and figuring out if the military could do so effectively without making things worse.

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