It isn’t terribly surprising that polls are showing Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of even a limited strike on Syria to punish that country’s ruling regime for using sarin gas on its own civilian populace. The United States is weary of conducting war on two fronts since 2001 and of its cost in lives and dollars. Even President Barack Obama’s promise of “no boots on the ground” in action to reinforce the longtime ban on chemical weapons hasn’t convinced the public — at least initially — that failing to act would be in the best interest of our national security.
The polls complicate the situation for Obama, who many believe is foolish in turning to Congress for approval even though he contends he has the authority to act on his own. But he has gained the support of some House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a strike resolution. Whether that is enough will become clear this week, when lawmakers return from a month of listening to constituents in their home districts.
The president faces the test of using his bully pulpit to persuade the public that action is crucial for world stability. In a sharp exchange with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a tea-party conservative who opposes any U.S. retaliation, Secretary of State John Kerry contended that not acting would be tantamount to giving Syrian President Bashar Assad approval to use gas in the future.
This is evidence supporting what a wise old observer once told me during President Richard Nixon’s controversial efforts to reach out to Communist China after years of denying the Mao government recognition. When I said Americans generally saw this as a problem, he replied that foreign policy should not follow the ups and downs of public opinion. “Nothing would be accomplished that way,” he said. “It is important that the chief executive bring the populace along with him.”
Can Obama reverse this national revulsion to a new military operation in time for a strike to be effective? The longer this drags on, the less his chance of making a definitive statement with cruise missiles backed up by bombers on military targets. Firing on chemical weapons stores is out of the question because of the probable spread of the deadly agent.
There are many facets to this debate. What role, if any, does Israel’s influence play? The Israeli government has issued a strong denunciation of Syria; clearly, the Jewish state’s leaders and its supporters here don’t understand why Obama would take the matter to Congress. They contend the message to Assad — and, for that matter, the world — should have been sent days ago in the strongest action outside troop deployment. It is hard to argue against this position.
But polls show a difficult hurdle for the chief executive.
A Washington Post-ABC poll reveals that a whopping 59 percent of Americans oppose launching missiles. That contrasts sharply with a December Post-ABC poll showing 63 percent of Americans supported a limited military response if Assad were to use gas.
A Pew Research Center survey this weekend found 48 percent of respondents oppose airstrikes, though “the share of the public who said Obama has explained his case ... clearly improved” — from 27 percent in interviews last week to 38 percent over the weekend.
Many Americans believe a missile strike against the Syrian military would lead to a long-term U.S. commitment and would have a significant backlash against the United States.
Their concern is the result of 11 years of entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Promises of a brief engagement probably aren’t going to convince most that this isn’t just the first step to the loss of more American lives and money.
The president should have acted quickly after determining the validity of charges against Assad. Still, it is hard to imagine that this nation, and the rest of the civilized world, wouldn’t support the strongest possible measures as warning against future use of a hideous, indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction long banned from the battlefields.
Dan K. Thomasson, a Hoosier native and Franklin College trustee, is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.