A massacre last week of more than 100 civilians — including women and children — cast a pall on U.N. peacekeeping efforts in Syria, provoking near-universal international condemnation. Many in Washington are frustrated and are urging the United States to do, well, something. But a key question lingers for Americans: Do they actually want to use their own military might to stop the killing in Syria?
The answer is probably no, at least for now. A smattering of polls this year show little support for getting U.S. troops involved in Syria, but long-term trends show big majorities of Americans support using U.S. troops to stop governments from committing genocidal mass killings.
The divergent poll results may reflect a pro-intervention philosophy running up against a Syrian crisis that lacks an easy military solution or clear international support for the use of force. Nevertheless, the results illuminate how the public is grappling with the issue right now.
Let’s start with evidence against support for an invasion. By a 78-to-14-percent margin, registered voters in a March Fox News poll said the United States should not “put troops on the ground” in Syria. The introduction to that survey question was about as sharp as it could be, noting that the “current dictatorial regime” has “killed more than 7,000 of its own people to try to end the rebellion.” And still, nearly eight in every 10 poll respondents said “no” to troops. Air support to protect anti-government groups was somewhat more popular, but the only proposal for Syrian action that gained majority support in the Fox survey was providing humanitarian aid — 82 percent backed this measure.
After a round of severe and highly publicized bombing in Homs in February, a CNN poll found similar reluctance to do anything. Just 25 percent said the United States had a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria; 73 percent said it did not. Twice as many — 50 percent -- said countries other than the United States have a duty to intervene.
The raw political calculus for President Obama — if based on his experience last year in Libya — does not predict a windfall of public support or satisfaction even if intervention did result in regime change. Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has criticized the president’s actions so far as a “policy of paralysis” and advocated arming anti-government groups. Such a proposal also receives little support from the public — just 25 percent in the Fox News poll.
But there’s another strain of polling that hints at broader support for military action, particularly in the case of genocide. More than seven in 10 Americans supported the use of U.S. troops “to stop a government from committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people,” according to a 2010 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The finding was no one-year fluke: The idea had at least 69 percent support in biennial surveys since 2002, with little falloff during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The two results may seem contradictory. On the one hand, Americans are willing to use their own military to step in the way of genocide, but on the other they overwhelmingly oppose such action to prevent such violence in the specific case of Syria.
The Chicago Council survey provides some clues for the divergence. When asked about specific scenarios, support was lower for joining a peacekeeping force in Darfur (56 percent) and still lower for ensuring a peace agreement was kept between Israel and the Palestinians (49 percent).
It may be that Americans have an idea that the United States should intervene in the worst of humanitarian circumstances but that the military cannot go to every nation where violence breaks out, especially without support from NATO or the United Nations. Syria certainly appears to be in crisis territory, but Americans are not paying a great deal of attention. In addition to a presidential election, the public’s gaze is largely stuck on the economy. Fully 37 percent of the public said in April they were following the violence in Syria “not at all closely” in a Pew Research Center poll.
The latest and most shocking violence could change that dynamic, but like the road to peace in Syria, public support military intervention appears to have a long way to go.
Foreign policy poll watcher: Most weeks we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page.