And in this election year, intervening in Syria — to support the rebels and boost security for the people — is good policy for Obama the president and good politics for Obama the candidate.
Let’s consider the politics of Syrian intervention first. There is no political advantage for Obama to order any additional U.S. support for the Syrian opposition. Many critics of current Syria policy take for granted that Obama’s reluctance must be motivated solely by electoral concerns, because they seem unable to come up with any other explanation for the refusal to become more deeply involved in Syria’s conflict. This exaggerates the importance of domestic political considerations, but it would be wrong to say that they have no role. The reality is that the public is not interested in greater American involvement in Syria of any kind, except for providing humanitarian aid, as Scott Clement details here:
After a round of severe and highly publicized bombing in Homs in February, a CNN poll found similar reluctance to do anything. Just 25 percent said the United States had a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria; 73 percent said it did not. Twice as many — 50 percent — said countries other than the United States have a duty to intervene.
The raw political calculus for U.S. President Barack Obama — if based on his experience last year in Libya — does not predict a windfall of public support or satisfaction even if intervention did result in regime change. Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has criticized the president’s actions so far as a “policy of paralysis” and advocated arming anti-government groups. Such a proposal also receives little support from the public — just 25 percent in the Fox News poll.
When respondents are presented with the various options, the results aren’t even close. Most interventionist measures lose by forty or fifty points, and all military measures fail to win the support of a majority. The few progressive advocates of intervention in Syria are not going to turn against Obama over one issue if he doesn’t do what they want. Republican interventionists that keep demanding military intervention in some form will under no circumstances support Obama no matter what he does. Politically, Obama’s position on Syria is the obvious one that puts him on the right side of public opinion and costs him very little, apart from hawkish interventionists’ predictably critical Washington Post op-eds.
The arguments for the proposed military measures don’t make sense, and public opinion is squarely against all of them. Consider Pletka’s case for arming the opposition:
Far from intensifying a conflict that is claiming thousands of lives, effective weapons may finally give the edge to the opposition and coax more significant defections from the Syrian army.
It is doubtful that additional weapons are going to give the opposition an edge over the regime. More weapons will narrow the gap between the two sides, but that would almost certainly lead to the intensification of the conflict and a greater loss of life. In the event that arming the opposition somehow did give them an edge, do we think that they would not try to exploit the advantage? That, too, would lead to greater loss of life, and it could result in humanitarian disaster for civilian populations perceived to be regime supporters. If arming the opposition “works,” it will produce a drawn-out war of attrition, which still might not produce the political outcome that interventionists desire. Military aid for the opposition might encourage defections, but by the same token it might harden the resistance of pro-regime forces in the face of foreign support for their adversaries. Are pro-regime Syrians more or less likely to abandon Assad and his closest allies if the regime’s opponents are being actively supported and armed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.? I don’t know for certain, but I doubt that it would make them more likely to change sides.
In addition to the public’s opposition to all of the measures Pletka proposes, the reality is that the proposed military measures are not going to work or will exacerbate the conflict. It is hard to see why Obama should pursue a more aggressive Syria policy. It is not in his political self-interest, and he would be saddling the U.S. with a new military commitment of some kind that our government doesn’t need and that the public doesn’t want.