Half of Americans can’t identify Syria on a map (young Republicans do slightly better)

A February poll conducted by the Pew Research Center quizzed Americans on their ability to correctly identify faces, places and images that regularly appear in the news. About 80 percent could correctly identity the Twitter logo, for example; 73 percent knew New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie from his photo; 57 percent recognized the Chinese flag; and 55 percent could identify Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

But Americans did not do well when they were showed a map of the Middle East and asked to name the highlighted country. Only 50 percent correctly identified it as Syria. About one in five incorrectly said it was Turkey. Other frequent guesses were Saudi Arabia and Egypt. One in seven didn't even venture a guess.

Now that U.S. intelligence agencies have expressed what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described as “varying degrees of confidence” that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have used sarin, a chemical weapon, “on a small scale," people are looking to President Obama for a response. His administration stated several times that chemical weapons use was a "red line." Although no one has made clear what happens if Syria crosses that line, you can bet that the White House will feel pressure to do something.

But based on this Pew poll, that pressure may not come from a particularly wide swath of Americans, given how few of us know where Syria is. Here's the map that the pollster shows respondents, along with their most frequent answers:

Surprisingly to me, younger Americans were more likely to recognize Syria, with 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds correctly identifying the country, 52 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and only 48 percent of the over-50 crowd.

Republicans were more likely than Democrats to pick out Syria: 55 and 48 percent, respectively.

More education, unsurprisingly, correlated with better performance: Syria was identified by 39 percent of respondents with a high school education or less, by 56 percent with some college and by 61 percent who graduated from college.

All that said, being able to correctly identify Syria on a map obviously does not preclude an individual from expressing strong views about the country or what Obama should do about it. But it does add a bit more credence to the perception that Syria is not exactly at the center of America's national attention right now. And that in turn might make some sort of assertive and potentially risky U.S.-led military action in Syria, whatever its merits or downsides, a bit less likely.

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Max Fisher · April 25, 2013