A broad majority of Americans, exhausted by nearly a dozen years of war and fearful of tripping into another one, are opposed to a military strike on Syria, even though most say they think Syrian forces used chemical weapons against civilians, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Those findings illustrate the depth of the challenge facing President Obama as he tries to win support for a limited strike from a deeply reluctant Congress and an American public that has become steadily more skeptical of foreign engagement.
The poll underscores a steady shift in public opinion about the proper American role in the world, as fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made people less open to intervening in the world’s trouble spots and more preoccupied with economic travails at home.
In the Syrian crisis, 6 in 10 Americans oppose airstrikes, according to the poll, with similar majorities saying they fear military action could enmesh the United States in another long engagement in the Middle East and would increase the terrorist threat to Americans.
But the antipathy to foreign engagement extends beyond the current crisis. Sixty-two percent of the people polled said the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. In April 2003, a month after American troops marched into Iraq, 48 percent favored a leading role, while 43 percent opposed it.
When asked whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no while only 15 percent said yes. That is the highest level of opposition in a decade of polling on this question. At the start of the Iraq war, 48 percent favored staying out and 29 percent favored getting involved.
“A lot of people bought the idea that if we create democracy in the Middle East, the terrorists would stop coming,” said Walter Russell Mead, a professor of humanities and foreign policy at Bard College. “But that conflation has disappeared, and that makes it harder to gin up the popular support for foreign military intervention.”
Read the whole thing. And three out of four people told the pollster that their Congressman’s vote on this resolution would make a difference in how they voted in 2014. I have to think that the 2008 version of Barack Obama would be pleased with this result.
Look, I don’t think this is a big turning point in American history. We’ll forget about the lessons of Iraq just like we forgot about the lessons of Vietnam. We are a nation of secular missionaries; it’s in the American character, for better or for worse. Still, this is such a hopeful sign that the bipartisan Washington enthusiasm for foreign adventurism, either in the name of national security or humanitarian goals, has come to an end. In Batavia, New York, Bill Kauffman has got to be smiling.