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U.S. Public Is Cautious, Not “Isolationist”

“Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak,” the New York Times reports, one sentence before thoroughly refuting its own claim. That’s the way the Times opens its story on its latest poll on American attitudes toward intervention in Syria and North Korea. But then the Times follows that claim with this one: “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

The national conversation on foreign affairs is a bit muddled, in part because the Republican Party is in the wilderness and searching for its post-Iraq identity, and in part because Barack Obama, the current Democratic president, ran on the supposed amorality of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and then relied on Bush’s strategy and tactics once he won election. So neither Democrats nor Republicans can say for certain where their party stands on some of the thorniest of foreign policy issues. And the Times is clearly confused by this; I doubt, for example, that countries subject to abundant drone strikes supported by 70 percent of Americans would suggest that U.S. voters are “isolationist.”

Nonetheless, the American people do seem to be opposed to an American invasion of Syria and North Korea. There are, however, some important caveats. One is that respondents aren’t exactly tuned in to the Syrian conflict. The poll shows that only 10 percent say they are following the conflict “very closely,” and that number is actually on a steady decline from past polls. As Shmuel Rosner notes, yesterday’s Pew poll found Americans similarly disengaged from the conflict, and suggests correctly that this lack of interest should factor in whatever conclusions we draw from the polls.

Rosner also says that if the public paid more attention “we might discover that by paying attention it becomes less keen on involvement, not more.” That may be true–the more the public learns about who would likely take over for Bashar al-Assad, the less people might want to facilitate that end. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that whatever opportunity the U.S. had to dramatically alter the shape of Syria’s future government should be spoken of in the past tense. The big wild card is whether the public believes that the use of chemical weapons at some point makes our increased involvement a moral obligation whether they like it or not.

But by tuning in they may also learn more about the horrific death toll and hear the popular comparisons to the Rwandan genocide and the Clinton administration’s inaction at the time. They also may become convinced that the evidence that Assad’s crew used sarin gas is compelling enough to have violated President Obama’s “red line.” But that brings us to the other wild card in all this: the president’s own rhetoric.

As I’ve written before, the president moves the needle on public opinion when it comes to foreign policy, especially matters of war, and Obama is no exception. The public’s red lines on Syria mirror the president’s, and Obama had the same luck with Afghanistan, boosting support for the war effort when he needed to rally the public to his plan to increase troop levels there during his first term. Past presidents have generally had the same experience. This is probably even more the case when the public isn’t paying close attention to an issue, and thus the president’s argument is among the few–and often the most forceful–they hear.

At the same time, however, if they tune in now to hear the president talk about red lines and the Syrian conflict, they will hear a president understandably wary of intervention. Obama may have painted himself into a corner by setting red lines, and one gets the sense momentum is building in the administration toward some sort of increased involvement. But there will be no clamoring for “boots on the ground,” and probably no appetite for it among the public. That’s unlikely to change, especially without support for such action in the White House, even if Americans finally start tuning in.


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