Remember when Barack Obama’s campaign strategy depicted him as the foreign-policy President? Good times, good times. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows his approval rating plummeting on foreign policy among all political demographics, and 40/49 overall:
About half of Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling foreign policy, a new high as he confronts a diplomatic opening with Iran and efforts to remove chemical arms in Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved.
The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.
The poll also found that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria. On his handling of relations with Iran, 39 percent approved, while 44 percent disapproved.
“I think he’s looking very weak, and he put us in a dangerous situation with Syria,” Arlene Woods, 57, an independent voter from Ellicott City, Md., said in a follow-up interview. “I have a son in the military. When it doesn’t involve our own safety or security on our soil, then I don’t think it’s justifiable to use military force.”
To get an idea of just how badly Obama has stumbled on Syria, one has to look at the data series from the NYT/CBS poll on foreign policy after Benghazi. Six weeks after the terrorist attack and four weeks after the collapse of the “YouTube video” narrative, Obama had a 49/41 approval rating on foreign policy. By December, it had rebounded to 51/32. As late as June, Obama was still above water at 45/39, with 16% unsure at that time just what Obama was doing. The current 40/49 rating is his worst since March 2012’s 40/41 and April 2011’s 39/46. The difference? Probably the exodus of Democrats and independents after seeing the Nobel Peace Prize winner demand approval for war as a first resort, which may well prove temporary.
Or, perhaps not. Despite a month’s worth of messaging about the necessity of American involvement in Syria, voters refuse to budge on the subject. In December 2012, the poll showed a 27/62 split on American responsibility; nine months and several presidential pronouncements later, it’s 26/68, slightly worse.
What about the fallback position Obama seized when his administration fumbled on military action? Voters aren’t terribly impressed with that, either. Only 33% think that it’s at all likely that Syria will comply with an agreement to get rid of chemical weapons, with 66% thinking it unlikely or very unlikely. If Syria balks, support for American military action of any kind comes to a paltry 39/57. An even wider margin doesn’t think that chemical weapons should get a higher response than any other mass killing of civilians, 25/68, undermining another of Obama’s arguments for military intervention.
In other words, Obama is as weak as he was before retreating on the military strikes. Over the weekend, the Economist — hardly a bastion for American intervention or conservative thought — called that retreat “a new low for those who cherish freedom“:
Yet the deal looks good only because the mess Mr Obama had got himself into was so bad. Step back, and the outcome looks rotten.
For a start, the deal itself is flimsy because it will be so hard to enforce. Mr Obama reserves the right to attack a delinquent Syria but the unpopularity of military action among America’s voters makes it clear that only an egregious breach, such as another chemical attack, could stir the country to action. Although Mr Putin would lose face if Syria brazenly defied the agreement, he now knows that Mr Obama needs his support. Given that Russia cares more about diplomatic parity with America than about de-fanging Mr Assad, it is more likely to prolong the crisis than resolve it. Nor is it clear that Russia can force Syria to comply. Mr Assad may co-operate at first, when the will to enforce the deal is strongest. But it is hard to impose disarmament during a civil war. As time drags on, Mr Assad is likely to frustrate the process—both to keep some chemical weapons and to be seen to defy America.
America’s credibility as an ally has been undermined. Whereas Mr Putin has stood firmly by Mr Assad, even while 100,000 people have perished, the West has proved an inconstant friend to the opposition. Two years ago, when only a few thousand Syrians had died, the liberal democracies called for Mr Assad’s ousting, but Mr Obama refused to get mixed up in the fight, even though the regime was reeling. His lone attempt not to look weak was the promise to punish any use of chemical weapons. Since then the formerly largely moderate rebel force has become infested by Sunni extremists, including foreign fighters and al-Qaeda.
As for Syria so for the Middle East. The Arab spring has driven a wedge between the West and its allies. Mr Obama recently sent his envoy to Cairo to ask the generals not to fire on an encampment of protesting Muslim Brothers. But, in an echo of Sadat, the generals preferred to heed Saudi advice, shoot the Brothers and collect billions of dollars of Arab aid. When the cold war ended, the West’s leadership showed imagination and resolve; no historian looking back at the Arab spring will say the same.
Last, America’s credibility as an opponent has also suffered. That’s not because all red lines that politicians draw must always be enforced. A leader who freely chooses to walk away from a fight need not suffer any loss of prestige. But a leader who the world sees is unable to fulfil his promises is inevitably weakened. And although nobody doubts that America’s armed forces continue to enjoy overwhelming superiority, its unwillingness to use them undermines their ability to give force to its diplomacy.
Projecting weakness presents real danger to the US. That’s why presidents who talk tough had better do the hard work to back up the words when it counts.