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Syria Hawks vs. the Public

Tom Friedman mentions something important in the middle of an otherwise awful column:

The fact that Americans overwhelmingly told Congress to vote against bombing Syria for its use of poison gas tells how much the divide on this issue in America was not left versus right, but top versus bottom. Intervening in Syria was driven by elites and debated by elites. It was not a base issue. I think many Americans could not understand why it was O.K. for us to let 100,000 Syrians die in a civil war/uprising, but we had to stop everything and bomb the country because 1,400 people were killed with poison gas.

What Friedman overlooks here is that all forms of U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war have been extremely unpopular since pollsters began asking these questions. Americans wanted the U.S. to stay as far from participating in the war in Syria as possible from the very beginning. This was true whether the question was about arming the opposition, bombing Syrian air defenses, or inserting American forces into Syria. Occasionally, some polls found support for a “no-fly zone,” but this required many respondents to have no what was involved in enforcing a “no-fly zone.” It’s worth noting that this opposition to intervention is not something unique to the American public. There have been almost no nations where one can find majority support for any of the measures routinely advocated by interventionists, and this includes nations whose governments have been agitating for U.S. intervention for some time. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the arguments for doing any of these things are not at all persuasive, and their constant repetition over the better part of two years has not improved them.

The odd thing about the last month’s debate is that Obama and his allies should have known how strong the opposition to any military action was, but they nonetheless proceeded to argue for an attack with some of the weakest, most cliche-ridden interventionist arguments in a decade. That is one reason why opposition to an attack spiked as soon as the administration began actively pushing for one. Hawks often complain that the public doesn’t support intervention in Syria because Obama has failed to explain why it is “necessary,” but that gives presidents more credit for driving public opinion than they deserve. If the experience of the last month is any indication, opposition to intervention in Syria only seems to get stronger when political leaders make a sustained effort to promote it. Perversely, the lesson that many foreign policy professionals and pundits may already be drawing from the recent Syria debate is that public opinion is an obstacle to be circumvented rather than a sign that a particular policy needs to be reconsidered. That would be a huge mistake, since it will just make the gap between the public and their leaders that much larger in the future, but it is one that many of them seem almost eager to make.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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