Americans are deeply apprehensive about President Barack Obama’s strategy, or his admitted lack thereof, for tackling the threat posed to Western interests by the Islamic State militants. Just one year ago, the president was marshalling support among Americans and around the world for strikes in Syria with the aim of punishing Bashar al-Assad for gross crimes against humanity. He found that the public was deeply skeptical of his proposed military solution in Syria. Today, however, the opposite is true, and the public thinks the U.S. is not doing enough to protect its interests around the world through military force. The rapid shift in public opinion is nothing short of remarkable.
For an apples-to-apples comparison, take Pew Research Center’s polling over the course of just less than one year.
On September 9, just one day before Barack Obama addressed the nation in prime time where he said that strikes inside Syria would be necessary but he would first pursue congressional and Russian-proposed off-ramps allowing him to back of his threat to use force, Pew released a public opinion poll which showed it would be deeply unpopular to attack Syria.
“Over just the past week, the share of Americans who oppose U.S. airstrikes in Syria has surged 15 points, from 48% to 63%,” Pew reported. “Just 28% favor U.S. military airstrikes against Syria in response to reports that its government used chemical weapons.”
Pew found that it was Republicans in particular who had turned against airstrikes in Syria over the course of one week – from 40 percent opposing those strikes to 70 percent. What changed? Over the course of that week, the White House signaled that those strikes would be surgical to the point of ineffectuality and that a Moscow-backed plan favored by the White House would likely allow Assad to remain in power. It was a mission without an objective, and the public lost all interest in airstrikes for their own sake.
The commentary class took exactly the wrong lessons from this episode. The post-Iraq hangover persists, they said. America, war-weary, is still allergic to foreign intervention, even in defense of international norms like the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Flash forward to today, and that hangover has mysteriously vanished. Not only do Americans back airstrikes in Syria, but they are generally down on the president’s dovish approach to foreign affairs.
A Pew/USA Today poll released on Thursday showed 54 percent support airstrikes in Syria aimed at rolling back the Islamic State. Only 31 percent oppose them. Another 54 percent say that President Obama’s approach to foreign affairs is “not tough enough.”
Moreover, the public believes that the United States is, as a whole, too passive in defense of its interests. “[T]he share saying the U.S. does too little to address global problems has nearly doubled – from 17% to 31% – since last November,” Pew reported, “while the percentage saying it is doing too much has fallen from 51% to 39%.”
Again, much of this shift in public opinion comes from Republicans. Last year, 52 percent of self-identified Republicans said the U.S. did too much to solve the world’s problems. Today, only 37 percent of Republicans say that, while 46 percent said the U.S. does too little.
Only a slim majority of Democratic moderates and African-American voters believe Obama’s approach to international security issues is “about right.” At 66 percent, self-identified liberals overwhelmingly support the president’s approach to foreign affairs. All other subgroups are split on or disapprove of Obama’s handling of foreign policy.
A majority of Americans of all political stripes agree that the threat posed by Iran and North Korea’s nuclear program, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine all pose a “major threat” to the United States. America’s are split on whether issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China’s rise, and global climate change represent major threats.
This shift in public opinion over one year is dramatic. It shows that the opposition to Syrian airstrikes last year was not rooted in the public’s concern that another Iraq War was no the horizon, but that the president had not articulated a clear strategic goal in Syria. Today, however, Obama is also vacillating on whether the U.S. has a strategic objective while he considers airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria.
If Obama continues to exhibit paralyzing indecision, expect the public to continue to lose faith in both the mission in Syria and the president. When this happens, the commentary class can continue to blame Iraq.