- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
As President Barack Obama mulls what to do about evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own citizens, two new polls gauging Americans’ attitudes toward intervention won’t make his decision any easier.
A Pew survey released yesterday showed lukewarm American support for intervention. Asked their opinion of the United States taking military action against the Syrian regime if it was proved Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, 45 percent of respondents said they were in favor, while 31 percent said they were opposed. In a reflection of the U.S. public’s ambivalence on this issue, the remainder — almost one-quarter of all respondents — said they didn’t know.
A New York Times/CBS poll released today, meanwhile, finds that 62 percent of Americans do not believe the United States has a "responsibility" to intervene in Syria. The New York Times, in its article on the poll, used that finding to make the case that "the public does not support direct military action" in Syria now.
Not so fast. Pew also asked in March whether the United States has a responsibility to intervene in Syria, and 64 percent of respondents said no. It’s possible for Americans to reject the idea that the United States has a "responsibility" to act as the world’s police, and nevertheless support intervention in Syria under certain circumstances.
The two polls are clear on one thing: Syria is not a priority for Americans. Only 18 percent of those surveyed in the Pew poll said they were following the news from Syria very closely — a figure that dipped to 10 percent in the New York Times/CBS poll.
So where does that leave Obama as he prepares to defend his red line? If he has incontrovertible proof of Assad’s chemical weapons use, there is reason to believe he could initially cobble together a majority in favor of intervention. But given Americans’ relative apathy toward the conflict, there is also reason to believe that they would sour on the conflict if it dragged on or incurred significant costs. What the president needs is a quick, low-cost intervention that would allow the United States to take a backseat to other international partners. Whether that’s a realistic possibility, given the reality in Syria, is very much an open question.