Pop quiz: What’s less popular than Dick Nixon during the dregs of Watergate, BP during the Gulf oil spill, and even the current Congress?
You guessed right. A U.S. military intervention in Syria.
Nixon, even in disgrace, drew roughly 25 percent approval. BP bottomed out at 18 percent. Congress, that dysfunctional sinkhole, is averaging around 15 percent. But according to the latest national poll, released Saturday by Reuters/Ipsos, the percentage of Americans who support a pugilistic visit to Syria is an underwhelming . . . nine.
That’s nine percent yes for war, 60 percent no — another thumbs-down verdict from a war weary nation, echoing the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, which in June reported 15 percent yes and 66 percent no. The timing could not be worse for President Obama, because while the public is saying “stay out,” the administration is methodically preparing to go in. And as many politically-wounded past presidents could attest, it’s hard to wage war for very long without broad domestic support.
Accountability and consequences
Secretary of State John Kerry, in his stern statement yesterday, virtually signaled that intervention is the sole remaining option. He said it’s “undeniable” that tyrant-leader Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, and that the Syrian government’s decision to host U.N. inspectors has come “too late.” He said that the use of chemical weapons is an “inexcusable” breach of international law, and that “there must be accountability” and “consequences” for this “moral obscenity.” He said that Obama “will be making an informed decision about how to respond.”
If Kerry’s words (as vetted by the White House) mean anything, there is only one way for Obama to respond. Indeed, if Obama’s own words mean anything, he has no choice but to respond militarily – because he has been trapped by his own rhetoric. On at least five separate occasions, Obama has warned that if the autocratic Syrian government ever crossed a “red line” by going chemical in its ongoing civil war, America would be compelled to act militarily for moral reasons. If he backs down at this point, his international credibility would be shot, and Syria’s close ally – Iran – would duly note the moment, as it continues to nurture its nuke program.
Obama won’t act unilaterally, a la Bush; he won’t send in the troops and unleash indiscriminate shock and awe. By all accounts, he’ll act only after assembling an ad hoc international coalition (presumably with support from the European Union and the Arab League), and we’re already hearing hints that America will confine itself to “surgical” cruise missile attacks on chemical stockpiles and related military targets – designed to punish Assad for breaching the rules of war, but not to the point of fomenting regime change. (Yeah, I know. What rules of war?)
But the big question is, what’s Plan B? What if the military surgery doesn’t work – and Assad feels emboldened? Or what if it works too well, Assad’s regime is then destabilized, and the rebels in the civil war gain the upper hand? That result wouldn’t be so great either, given the fact that the rebels are heavily infested with al Qaeda and other anti-American extremists.
As think-tanker Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote the other day, the only other possible U.S. option would be “a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime.” But, as he also pointed out, “That could lead to a Syria under American occupation. And very few Americans today are likely to support another costly military adventure in the Middle East.”
Sensing a quagmire
That basically explains why only nine percent of us support a military intervention. The average American is probably knowledge-challenged about the intricacies of the Syrian civil war (quick! – explain the differences between the Salafists, the Sunnis, and the Alawites!), but he or she knows instinctively that it would be a quagmire. As I wrote in a recent freelance piece, “Imagine if Obama had to go on TV to explain the Syrian complexities to a domestic audience. Americans like to be able to distinguish good guys from bad guys, but good luck trying to get that kind of clarity in Syria.”
It’s a tough situation for Obama. Now that Assad has gassed his own people (a story today describes “bodies convulsing and mouths foaming”), he has to buttress his “red line” rhetoric with action. But in doing so, he’ll get minimal domestic support – perhaps an initial poll spike (as often happens when a president goes to war), but nothing that would sustain a lengthy intervention.
Best of luck, sir. It’s great that you and others in the international community want to act for laudable humanitarian reasons, but, as the average citizen already intuits, the outcomes on the ground seem to range from bad to worse.
And as for all those Republican aspirants who are already traversing the early presidential primary states, I have one simple question: Why in the world would you want such a thankless job?
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