The Syrian civil war has long bedeviled Barack Obama – American non-intervention has arguably made it worse; American intervention could arguably make it worse – but now he has finally made a decision, sort of. He’s sending arms to the beleaguered rebels who are fighting autocratic President Bashar al-Assad. It’s a measured but significant U.S. escalation – yet he’s doing it with virtually no support on the home front.
The public’s dearth of enthusiasm for another Middle East adventure should not be overlooked; thus far, it has been given short shrift. Most of the debate over What To Do has focused on the moral and tactical dimensions – What stance is in our national interest? Do we have a responsibility to stop the killings? Can we prudently flex American muscle without sinking into another quagmire? Can we arm the rebels without strengthening the al Qaeda people in their midst? If we make military moves on the Syrian chessboard, what will happen next? – but we also need to factor in the domestic political dimension.
Because, as many presidents (most recently, George W. Bush) have long discovered, it’s tough to sustain domestic popularlity in the midst of waging an unpopular war.
The foreign policy elites, think tanks, liberal interventionists, Republican neocons, and (lately) Bill Clinton have all been pushing Obama to intervene in some fashion. They’ve made some good arguments – about the need to protect innocent citizens, the need to stop the war from becoming a regional conflagration, the need to counteract the growing influence of Iran (which is helping Assad via its proxy, Hezbollah) – but the average Joe is unimpressed. He/she is is weary of war, and wary of doing more.
According to the latest bipartisan NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, released earlier this month, only 11 percent of Americans endorsed the idea of sending arms to the rebels – the option that Obama just chose. Only 15 percent endorsed some form of U.S. military action (for instance, a no-fly zone that might hamper the Syrian air force). A 42 percent plurality supported humanitarian aid – which is what Obama was already doing – and another 24 percent said that Obama shouldn’t do anything.
So at a time when Obama has ratcheted up America’s role, he’s supported in that effort by no more than 26 percent of the American people. A landslide majority says no, and, according to the poll, that shared skepticism crosses party lines and most of the demographic groups.
Granted, many of the skeptics are probably ill-informed about the complexities of the Syrian conflict (and might be at pains to find Syria on a map); for that reason, they probably prefer to just tune the place out. But there’s probably another reason for their resistence. Call it the Iraq Syndrome.
It’s no surprise that most Americans resist getting sucked into another Middle East conflict, given the costly and bloody farce that was ginned up in their name a decade ago. There’s no need to review the particulars; put simply, they still remember being told that the U.S. would be magically “greeted as liberators,” only to discover that the U.S. was enmeshed in an internecine shooting war between Sunnis and Shiites. And as the years passed, with our soldiers dying in the crossfire, President Bush suffered plummeting popularity – which in turn greased the ’06 Democratic congressional takeover, and the ’08 Obama victory.
Obama was elected to end wars, not start new ones; naturally, he has no desire to replicate Bush’s domestic fate. Arming the rebels might just be the first step. If he succumbs to “mission creep” – a slow, incremental intervention – and he is forced to deal with the requisite unintended consequences, rest assured that the headlines in the chattersphere will soon bemoan “Obama’s War.”
Indeed, it was truly perverse yesterday to see Dick Cheney opining on Fox News about what Obama should do. Cheney, of all people. Cheney, who infamously declared during the run-up to Iraq that “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” Yet there he was, indulged by Fox News as some kind of wise man, harrumphing about Obama’s handling of the Syria civil war: “I don’t think it’s been well handled…I think my instinct would have been to support the opposition sooner.”
Yeah, whatever. We’re already well acquainted with that guy’s instinct. And I well remember an exchange that he had with ABC News in 2008…
Q: “Two-thirds of Americans say (Iraq) is not worth fighting.”
Q: “‘So?’ You don’t care what the American people think?”
Cheney: “No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.”
But though Cheney was loath to admit it, he and Bush at that point were politically dead because of their infamous war. As for Obama, he knows all too well that he can’t plunge America into a new one with backing from just one-fourth of the American people. As his chief of staff rightly warned on TV yesterday, “We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past. We’re not going to do it here.”
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