The Obama administration’s threats of consequences for Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons bring the American public to a critical decision point.
On the one hand, people have been stubbornly reluctant to support a military intervention. On the other, the public has also said chemical weapons are a point at which the U.S. military should take action. So, what happens?
Opposition has been clear in polls this year. By roughly 2 to 1, more registered voters said involvement in Syria is not in the U.S. national interest than said it is in a July Quinnipiac University poll. This mirrors multiple surveys by CBS and the New York Times finding between 61 and 69 percent saying the United States does not have a responsibility to intervene.
The specter of chemical weapons changes Americans’ judgment. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last December found more than six in 10 supporting military action if Syria used chemical weapons against its people, compared with 17 percent who supported getting involved when such weapons were not mentioned. Likewise, a May CNN/ORC poll found 66 percent saying the United States would be “justified” in using military action if the government presented them convincing evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons to kill civilians in its country.
With chemical weapons playing a deciding factor, American leaders’ response to a major alleged chemical weapons attack could change some minds. But winning public support may be an uphill fight.
Leaders must first overcome an attention deficit: Fewer than one in five Americans have followed Syria “very closely,” according to Pew Research Center surveys since 2011, and general support for action has not changed much even as evidence that Syria used chemical weapons has accumulated. Just 16 percent in the CNN poll said they were “certain” Syria had used chemical weapons to kill civilians, while far more (67 percent) said this was only likely. Indeed, Americans are far less certain about Syria’s use of chemical weapons today than they were about Iraq’s possession of such weapons leading up to the U.S. invasion in 2003. Then, 56 percent were certain that Iraq had biological or chemical weapons.
Americans' thinking on Syria is also far more complex than chemical weapons alone. A June Pew Research Center poll found that about half of Americans “agree” that it’s important for the United States to oppose authoritarian regimes such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's and that the United States has a moral obligation to stop violence when it can. But even larger majorities said the military is overcommitted and that Syrian opposition groups may be no better than the current government.
As Americans take in the latest information about Syria, politicians must navigate a rocky and complicated realm of public opinion, with no guarantee that their constituents will support their actions in the end.
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Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.