For months, polls have shown that most Americans do not favor US military involvement in Syria’s civil war. Even with news of last week’s chemical attack – presumably by the Assad regime – that killed hundreds of civilians, the percentage of those favoring an aggressive US response increases only slightly, according to the most recent survey.
It’s part of a pattern dating back to the Vietnam War, certainly since the “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 was shown to have been wrong. And it has continued as the public observes the persistent sectarian violence in Iraq following US withdrawal and the difficult US disengagement from Afghanistan.
"Will Americans suffer from an Iraq syndrome in future conflicts?” CNN polling director Keating Holland asks on CNN’s website. “We may get an answer to that question in the next few weeks."
The most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, taken Aug. 19-23, finds that “Americans strongly oppose US intervention in Syria's civil war and believe Washington should stay out of the conflict even if reports that Syria's government used deadly chemicals to attack civilians are confirmed.”
By 60 to 9 percent, according to this poll, those surveyed believe the US should not intervene militarily in Syria. The percentage of those favoring intervention increases to 25 percent when the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons is factored in – still far less than the 46 percent who say “no” to US intervention under such circumstances, and less than the 30 percent found to favor intervention with proof of chemical attacks two weeks earlier.
By 47 to 27 percent, those surveyed by Reuters/Ipsos also oppose President Obama’s decision to send arms to some of the rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A Monitor/TIPP poll taken August 24-28 had respondents opposing US military action in Syria 52 to 39 percent. That same poll had just 22 percent rating Obama’s handling of the situation Syria as “excellent” or “good” with 38 percent saying the President’s handling of Syria had been “poor” or “unacceptable.”
Other polls taken earlier this year showed greater support for US military action in response to chemical weapons use in Syria. But that was at a time when the question of American intervention may have been more abstract, less likely to happen any time soon. Now, US Navy destroyers (and likely attack submarines) are poised to launch barrages of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian targets.
The picture may change in the next day or two, but for now administration officials seem eager to avoid the mistake of Iraq – telling the Associated Press the evidence so far is not a “slam dunk,” a reference to former CIA director George Tenet’s infamous characterization of locating Saddam Hussein’s WMD in Iraq.
“A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria includes a few key caveats – including acknowledging that the US intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime's chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, according to two intelligence officials and two more US officials,” reports the AP.
Officials used the “no smoking gun” phrase in similar comments to The New York Times.
In any case, Pew pollster Andrew Kohut told Politico recently: “Internationalism is at a low point and people are very wary of American involvement – particularly American military involvement – in that part of the world.”
“We’ve had a rather consistent ‘let’s not get involved’ response to the crises in the Middle East more generally now for the past three or four years,” Mr. Kohut said. “This part of the world has not proved to be a successful one from the point of view of the American public, so wanting to avoid further trouble is not unexpected.”
Or as CNN's Mr. Holland puts it: "After the Vietnam war, Americans were much less likely to support the use of US force, a phenomenon often referred to as the Vietnam syndrome.”
Whether such opinion changes in favor of US involvement in Syria is likely to depend on what proof of chemical weapons use is presented by US intelligence sources soon and by United Nations weapons inspectors likely to report their findings this weekend.
It may also depend on how Obama portrays any US mission he has decided upon.
In his interview on PBS’s "NewsHour" Wednesday night, Obama referred to “a shot across the bow,” which sounds brief and perhaps largely symbolic.
He also made a point of emphasizing that he’s thinking in terms of “limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about.”
As with all conflicts, there are likely to be what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to as “unknown unknowns” – “the ones we don't know we don't know.”
For example, observes John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, “Obama on the 'NewsHour' last night seemed not to appreciate that what he might do to persuade Assad from using gas again might make it more likely that Al Qaeda would obtain access to poison gas.”
Such unknowns may be adding to public wariness about any US attack on Syria.