The Obama administration says it is not considering invading Syria or arming its rebels to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power. (Associated Press)

While harping on the need for Assad to stop the violence, President Obama is throwing cold water on prospects of a Libya-like military intervention. Obama’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 toward using the military to topple dictators.

Obama learned this lesson first-hand leading the effort to remove Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Just before Obama announced the enforcement of a no-fly zone last March, Americans split about evenly on whether this was a good idea, 49 supporting and 45 percent opposing in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The public was somewhat more supportive of the U.S. acting as a participant in a no-fly zone.

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 to 31 percent after Moammar Gaddafi’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 promoting democracy in other nations was a top foreign policy priority in a 2011 Pew Research Center 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 poll. But even more — 70 percent in a recent CBS News poll — said the United States should stay out of other countries’ affairs rather than try to replace dictatorships. Even when civilians are under violent attack by their own government, Americans split evenly on military intervention.

The obvious exceptions to this rule are wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both involved military invasions to unseat a government the United States 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 was seen as having chemical or nuclear weapons and connections with terrorism.

Take away those factors, and Americans are much more leery to cheer the drumbeat. In a 2006 Fox News poll, the public by 2 to 1 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. Obama seems more favorable to sanctions and diplomacy, and for most Americans, that’s probably just as well.

In contrast to his Republican rivals, presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Texas) has also staked out a strong anti-interventionist position. His preference for diplomacy resonates with some Republicans, but nearly twice as many said his opposition to intervention overseas is a major reason to oppose rather than support him in a Post-ABC poll last month.

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.

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