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How Much Does Public Opinion on Syria Matter? How Much Will It?

- September 4, 2013


The chart above comes from Google Trends, and the message is clear: even at the height of the US’s ostensible march towards military engagement in Syria – remember, all signs pointed towards military action last weekend until Obama’s surprising decision to seek Congressional approval – more Americans were using Google to get information about Miley Cyrus than Syria.

I was moved to compare the two after some discussion on Twitter this evening prompted by Larry Sabato’s reporting of a Reuter’s poll showing support for military action in Syria hovering somewhere around 20-30%.

The question I want to raise is the extent to which this might ultimately matter. There are two ways to think about this. The first is whether public opinion is going to influence whether the US actually launches hostilities against Syria. Here, I think public opinion mattered in so far as it may have played a role in getting Obama to seek Congressional approval in the first place – although personally I think the lost vote by Cameron in the UK was probably more important – but at this point the ball is probably in Congress’s court. It is certainly possible that a huge swing in public opinion could have an effect on the forthcoming vote, but my guess is 20% support vs. 40% support doesn’t make all that much difference at this point. The Senate is likely going to vote to approve in any case, and the House dynamics are going to follow district level concerns more than national ones. I’m sure we can find a few people who might flip because of trends in national public opinion, but I’d need to be convinced by someone who knows more about individual US legislators than I do that this could actually swing a vote.

But the more interesting question is whether the low public support for military action would actually have an effect down the road on either Obama’s ability to govern or the political fortunes of individual legislators. Here I am skeptical – conditional on this being the limited, aerial engagement that is being discussed now and not having some unexpected escalation occur – that Americans will actually not care all that much in the future if Obama launches a limited number of missiles at Syria. (hence the teaser figure above).

Consider the following thought experiment: if Benghazi had not taken place, then would there be any discussion of the rest of the Libyan events playing a role in American public opinion today? And Libya will – most likely – end up involving more military involvement than seems likely in Syria.

Then perhaps ironically, from a public opinion standpoint what now seems to matter here is the fact that a vote actually has to be taken in Congress more than the action that might result from that vote. As Sabato pointed out to me in a conversation we continued off of Twitter, it is possible that the vote could cost certain incumbent House Republicans in the coming 2014 primaries. And the point has been repeatedly raised that it would be a major political setback for Obama were he to lose this vote in Congress. So in a sense, we go through the looking glass: foreign policy has the potential to “matter” from a public opinion standpoint only because it has been converted into domestic politics: Is Obama losing strength in the second term? Are certain conservative members of the House conservative enough? My guess is these questions will reverberate in American political discussion longer than whether it was appropriate for Congress to authorize (should it choose to do so) and the President to execute low-scale military action despite underwhelming support on the part of the American public.