Monday, September 9, 2013

The problem with public polls about Syria

It's Iraq.
A new Associated Press poll shows a majority of Americans oppose a U.S. strike on Syria, despite a weeks-long Obama administration campaign to respond to chemical weapons attacks the U.S. blames on President Bashar Assad's regime. Most of those surveyed said they believe even limited U.S. attacks — as President Barack Obama has promised — would lead to a long-term commitment of military forces in Syria.   
That's from here.

There are lots and lots of reasons to be skeptical of a Syria strike, but the danger of the U.S. getting bogged down in a long-term engagement has to be low on the list.  Absolutely everyone, top to bottom, thinks that a lengthy commitment in Syria is a terrible, horrible idea.

Nonetheless, the possibility looms large in the public consciousness.  It's availability bias: when people think of war in the Middle East, and when they hear their leaders reassuring them that an operation will be quick and painless for Americans, they immediately think of the disastrous Iraq War.  Nevermind that the last time this debate played out, things went almost precisely according to plan.  Nevermind that there are countless important distinctions between an unprovoked invasion of Iraq and an air campaign to chastise the use of real, honest-to-god WMDs.  The collective opinions of large masses of people are only able to incorporate a certain level of nuance; apparently not enough to differentiate between Syria and Iraq.

These polls aren't meaningless.  Politicians have an obligation to faithfully represent the views of their constituents, even if their constituents are wrong.  Beyond that, the political climate plays an important role in the politics of the Syrian civil war, making Obama's job harder and giving Assad a bargaining chip, and maybe even a sympathetic ear.  But it's clear that polls like this are taking gauge of past events more than they're reflecting future possibilities.  

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