Behind the Numbers

Don’t Count on a Syria Intervention

In the end, Americans just aren't interested in getting involved in promoting democracy overseas.


Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Syrian rebels continue to be bombarded by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. And in the wake of a failed Security Council resolution that would have pushed for a transfer of power, the embattled leader shows little sign of giving up the reins — though he faces mounting international sanctions and efforts by his neighbors to push the nation towards a democratic government.

While harping on the need for Assad to stop the violence, President Barack Obama is throwing cold water on prospects of a Libya-like military intervention. And the administration’s reluctance to use force jibes with the philosophy of most Americans, who see spreading democracy as a good thing in general, but are much more ambivalent these days about using the military to topple dictators.

Obama learned this lesson first-hand in the effort to remove Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Just before the president announced the enforcement of a no-fly zone last March, Americans were split roughly evenly on whether this was a good idea, with 49 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The public was somewhat more supportive of the United States acting as a participant in a no-fly zone.

But Obama faced criticism over doing too little or too much in Libya, and his approval rating on the issue teetered throughout the conflict. The public approved of his efforts by 52 percent to 31 percent after Qaddafi’s killing, which capped a successful coordination between rebels and NATO forces to take down his regime. Nevertheless, fewer than half the public said the United States did the right thing by using military force in Libya, according to a November Quinnipiac University poll.

Why the lack of enthusiasm for what was probably an ideal outcome for Obama’s foreign policy team? In general, Americans don’t care too much about swooping in to replace dictators (nor dispatching bogeymen, as we noted last week). Only 13 percent of the public said that promoting democracy in other nations was a top foreign policy priority in a 2011 Pew poll, dead last among other foreign policy objectives, behind human rights and climate change. Protecting jobs of Americans workers and terrorism ranked highest, with over eight in 10 calling each a "top priority."

It’s not that democracy isn’t seen as something worth promoting, in general. Six in 10 Americans agreed the United States should be promoting democracy around the world in a 2007 Pew Research Center poll. But even more — 70 percent in a recent CBS News poll — said that the United States should stay out of other country’s affairs rather than try to replace dictatorships. (If that’s right, though, shouldn’t Ron Paul being doing better?) But even when civilians are under violent attack by their own government, Americans split evenly on military intervention.

The obvious exceptions to this rule are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both involved military invasions to unseat a government that Washington didn’t like. But both also involved much more than spreading democracy for its own sake. Afghanistan provided a haven for Osama bin Laden, and Iraq (right or wrong) was seen as having weapons of mass destruction and connections with terrorists.

Take away those factors, and Americans are much more leery to cheer the drumbeat. In a 2006 Fox News poll, the public two to one supported using military force only if "provoked or attacked" by another country.

In an election year with the economy and jobs at the front of voters’ minds, a crusading effort to fight for democracy in Syria might seem like a sure bet to shore up popularity. But Obama seems more favorable to sanctions and diplomacy, and for most Americans, that’s probably just as well.

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