WAR OR PEACE SEPTEMBER 3, 2013
One thing’s clear from the first wave of polls about possible U.S. intervention in Syria: The public is not on board. At least not yet. Last Friday, an NBC News survey showed 50 percent of adults opposed and only 42 percent ready to strike Syria. Today, Washington Post and Pew Research surveys show even less support: The Post found that only 36 percent supported intervention, compared to 59 percent opposed; according to Pew, supporters outnumber opponents by a 29 to 48 point margin. Opposition is broad and bipartisan, although there are signs of a gender gap. Men were more likely to support intervention than women in both of today’s surveys.
Though Americans are clearly opposed, there’s probably room for persuasion. Only 53 percent believe that there’s clear evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons. Realistically, there’s plenty of room for that number to grow. Unsurprisingly, those who believe that Assad has used chemical weapons are far more supportive of striking Assad on that basis. And there’s room for this number to shrink: 61 percent think strikes would lead to a “long term U.S. military commitment.” That fear seems unfounded, provided that the Obama administration remains committed to an air campaign without boots on the ground. If the president emphasizes the limited character of the operation, support is likely to increase. That was confirmed by last week’s NBC poll, which showed that voters would support an operation limited to cruise-missile strikes. And according to the Pew poll, 29 percent of adults are undecided. The number of undecided voters doesn’t necessarily prove that those with an opinion aren’t firm in judgment, but it is consistent with that possibility.
As recently as five months ago, polls showed that a plurality or majority of Americans would support strikes on Syria if Assad used chemical weapons. It’s unclear whether even the most effective public campaign could lead a majority of the public to support an upcoming attack on Syria. But prior support, even if only in theory, suggests that the public might become substantially more supportive if they’re more aware of Syrian behavior and the Obama administration’s limited objectives.