A Reversal on Chemical Weapons in Syria

The situation in Syria signals an increasingly adverse sentiment among the American public to any government policy which would involve U.S. engagement – through airstrikes or otherwise.  According to an August 29th NBC/WSJ poll, 44{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans opposed airstrikes against Syria to disrupt their chemical weapon capabilities.  A week later, the percentage of Americans opposing airstrikes rose to a majority, 51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} (NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, Sept. 4-8, 2013).

Further, this opposition has grown just as many Americans are tuning in to the conflict in Syria. 83{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans have heard or read at least something about reports of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians – with 57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} having heard “a lot” (CBS News/New York Times Poll. Sept. 6-8, 2013.)

The Syrian government blatantly crossed the “red line” President Obama established last year, not once but twice, with a clear disregard for the international accord against the use of chemical weapons. However, even with the high level of awareness about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, Americans are moving further away from intervention.  This opposition to military action represents a deviation from how Americans have viewed handling chemical weapons in recent decades.

Consider these other instances when Americans have been questioned about the use or potential use of chemical weapons:

  • In 1989, the United States accused Colonel Gaddafi and Libya of operating a plant which makes chemical weapons. If it was shown conclusively that such a plant exists, 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans supported military force to destroy the chemical plant while only 36{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said military force is NOT something we should do.  (Time/CNN/Yankelovich Clancy Shulman Poll, January 17, 1989)
  • In 1991, 69{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans favored restarting military action against the Iraqi army if they used chemical weapons against its own people, only 25{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} opposed. (NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, March 29, 1991)
  • In 1998, Saddam Hussein prevented United Nations teams from inspecting sites for possible chemical or biological weapons, and 60{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans supported using military force if Iraq continued to refuse to allow the UN weapons inspection team access, only 33{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} supported using economic and diplomatic pressure instead. (Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners Poll, January 30, 1998)
  • In 2003, 66{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans believed the United States should take military action to disarm Iraq to ensure it could not threaten other countries with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons (including 80{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Republicans, 59{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Democrats, and 60{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Independents), while only 25{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said they should not. (Princeton Survey Research Associates, January 3-6, 2003)
  • In 2004, 70{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans cited chemical and biological weapons as a critical threat to the vital interest of the United States in the next 10 years. (Global Views 2004: American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy Survey, August 9-12, 2004)

What has changed for Americans to be less inclined to support military force to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons?  There are four key elements which contribute to this shift in public opinion:

  1. Americans are war-weary from Afghanistan and Iraq. 

    At the start of the Iraq war in April 2003, a slight plurality of Americans (48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) believed the U.S. should take the leading role among all other counties in the world trying to solve international conflicts (CBS News/New York Times Poll. April 11-13, 2003.)  Over the past decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, this sentiment has flipped to the point that a strong majority (62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) believes the U.S. should NOT take a leading role, while only 34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe we should (CBS News/New York Times Poll. Sept. 6-8, 2013.)Part of the reason Americans prefer a more hands-off approach is because Americans are worried how the intervention in Syria could escalate. 87{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans are concerned that U.S. military action in Syria would be a long and costly involvement, with two-thirds (66{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) being very concerned.  (CBS News/New York Times Poll. Sept. 6-8, 2013.)

    Two years ago, in the first few months of fighting in Syria, 46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans felt the U.S. should be ready and willing to use military force around the world (CNN/ORC Poll. Nov. 18-20, 2011).  Two years later, even in the midst of the Syrian government’s two attacks with chemical weapons, now only 34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} feel we should be ready and willing, while 64{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} say we should be very reluctant (CNN/ORC Poll. Sept. 6-8, 2013).

  2. Syria does not present a direct threat to U.S. security or interests. 

    As mentioned in a previous blog post (here), there has always been a reluctance to intervene in foreign conflicts which do not present a direct threat to U.S. security or national interests.Regarding Syria, 69{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans believe it is not in the US national interest to be involved in the conflict, and only 29{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe it is in our national interest (CNN/ORC Poll. Sept. 6-8, 2013.)

    Also, half (50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans do not feel the situation in Syria presents a threat to the security of the U.S., while 45{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe it does (Pew Research Center/USA Today, Sept. 4-8, 2013.)

  3. President Obama has not clearly communicated why using military force to repress Syria’s chemical weapon capabilities would be in our national interest. 

    If the situation in the Syria does present a threat to national interests or U.S. security, the president has not made a strong enough case to win over the public.  Prior to President Obama’s mostly well-received address on Tuesday, an overwhelming 79{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans did NOT feel the Obama Administration had clearly explained what the country’s goals are in Syria (CBS News/New York Times Poll. Sept. 6-8, 2013) and 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believed he had NOT made a convincing case about the need for the U.S. to take military action (NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, Sept. 5-8, 2013.)Even following the President’s speech, 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of those who watched the speech said the President has NOT made a convincing case and 52{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} say they had no change in how they view his leadership on military and international issues (CNN/ORC Poll. Sept. 10, 2013.)

  4. Americans feel intervention will have limited impact on the conflict. 

    A primary concern for the public is the limited impact the U.S. would have if they did engage in a military airstrike.  Nearly three-fourths (72{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans believe the airstrikes would NOT achieve significant goals for the U.S. (CNN/ORC Poll. Sept. 6-8, 2013.)Also, only 21{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} feel it is extremely or very likely that a U.S. military strike in Syria would deter other world leaders from acquiring and using chemical weapons (AP Poll, Sept. 6-8, 2013.)

    Not only do Americans feel intervention would have a limited impact, but 75{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} agree that conducting airstrikes in Syria could make the situation in the Middle East worse (Pew Research Center/USA Today, Sept. 4-8, 2013.)

The atrocities committed in Syria cannot be understated, but the strong opposition of the American public may have prevented an immediate strike while diplomatic measures are being explored to remove chemical weapons from Syria.  If President Obama ultimately pursues a military response if diplomatic attempts fail, he has an uphill battle to win the support of the American public.  He will need to convince the public that it is both in our national interest and that the military strikes will have a significant impact that will prevent a long, costly engagement in the Middle East – no small feat.

Public Opinion Strategies