Public Opinion and the Syria Strike

National Review Online | Published on September 7, 2013

By Stanley Kurtz

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Congressional phone lines are melting from calls opposing a Syrian intervention, with margins running well over 10 to 1 against. Yet for all the polling and headcounts, we still haven’t truly admitted American public opinion into our strategic calculations on Syria. That is a serious mistake.

Instead of simply considering how a yes or no vote will affect the president’s credibility overseas or the Middle-East balance of power, we must attend to the long-term impact of our actions on the American public. As ill-advised interventions continue to weaken public confidence in a forceful foreign policy, any short-term gains in our credibility abroad are being more than canceled out by long-term losses in public will here at home.

Consider in this light two of the most articulate defenses of a Syrian intervention, James Ceasar’s from the right, and Samantha Power’s from the left.

Ceasar argues that even if President Obama’s Syria policies stem from blunders, are ineffective, and entail unforeseen risks, we must back him regardless, to preserve America’s credibility abroad. This argument has force insofar as it applies to the immediate after-effects of congressional approval. Yet the matter doesn’t end there.

The foreseeable risks of a Syrian intervention–retreat and humiliation, a drawn-out war, regional conflagration, further WMD use or proliferation, a new state for al-Qaeda–would gravely endanger not only our position in the Middle East, but future public support for a risky but necessary intervention in Iran.

Ceasar poses the choice as one between a merely ineffective or humiliating strike, on the one hand, and a disastrous diminution of American credibility abroad, on the other. Yet not only are some potential consequences of a strike truly grave, but the effect of (likely) failure on future public resolve here at home could easily rise to the level of disaster.

Like it or not, Caesar also says, this vote will begin to set the future direction of Republicans as either an internationalist or an isolationist party. Even if the Syria strike is the weakest possible example of intelligent internationalism, he maintains, this is the test-vote we face. Yet for those of us who reject both isolationism and an overly-ambitious brand of internationalism that futilely seeks to transform the political culture of the Middle East, either a yes or no vote risks sending the wrong political message.

We have reached the point where any hope of sustaining public support for a robust but discerning internationalism requires us to clearly and openly distinguish between wise and unwise interventions. This vote is an opportunity to prove to the public that intelligent internationalists recognize the difference between defending America’s core national interests and foolish and counterproductive overreach. Blur that distinction now, and the American public may reject internationalism altogether for the foreseeable future.

The argument of Power’s speech at the Center for American Progress clearly follows from her previously published work on humanitarian interventionism. In her bookA Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power explains that while her interventionist policy prescriptions are driven by humanitarian concerns, it has been necessary to overcome public opposition by stressing long-term dangers of humanitarian tragedies, such as threats to regional stability, the creation of militarized refugees, and future threats to American troops from dictators in possession of chemical weapons. Yet Power acknowledges that the public and policymakers often find these arguments wanting, since the way in which dictators treat their own citizens can be distinguished from their proclivity for proliferation, and since the pressures of a post 9/11 world mean that America has fewer resources to spare for humanitarian intervention.

All of this was reflected in Power’s address yesterday, which made unconvincing attempts to blur the distinction between internal use of chemical weapons and proliferation. Power laid out her usual pragmatic case for intervention, yet failed to properly examine the grave risks of action, despite having promised to do so. Even as Power warned that failure to act would “haunt our conscience,” she promised, ironically, that “this will not be Libya,” her signature policy triumph. The outcome in Libya cannot be comforting to conscience. Nor, I fear, will the outcome in Syria comfort conscience, whether a strike fall short of regime change, as Power promises, or attempts to remove Assad without openly avowing it, as the administration now hints it will do.

Above all, Power argues: “If we cannot summon the courage to act when the evidence is clear, and when the action being contemplated is limited, then our ability to lead in the world is compromised.” Here is the heart of the problem. The public rightly rejects a counterproductive adventure in a case where our interests are not truly at stake. It is absurd to turn Syria into a test-case for public will in a matter such as an Iranian nuclear bomb. Sadly, some in the world may now take it that way.

Yet by dragging an unwilling American public into a dangerous, no-win Syrian intervention, we are killing-off our ability to convince them that a strike at a soon-to-be nuclear Iran will be worth the substantial cost. Whatever we gain in international credibility from approving a Syrian strike, we lose in public will for future actions that truly matter. Power’s reckless interventionism isn’t strengthening public resolve, it’s killing it.

If President Obama takes a defeat on a Syria vote as a sign that Americans will refuse support a strike on Iran, it will be because he never took his red line on a nuclear Iran seriously to begin with. Assad’s internal use of chemical weapons is simply not comparable to the profound threat to American security posed by a nuclear Iran. From the standpoint of both policy and public support, we are lost if we cannot draw this essential distinction.

When she was out of government and able to speak more freely, Power argued that leaders undertaking humanitarian intervention ought to “forswear up front the pursuit of commercial or strategic interests.” She may now claim that attacking Syria is in America’s interest, yet the public correctly senses they are being taken for a ride. Power’s real goal is to force America to place its own strategic interests at risk for humanitarian ends in ways that previous American governments judged unwise. Obama’s embrace of these views is at the root of our dilemma.

Power’s policy revolution is eating away at American resolve, even as it fails to accomplish its humanitarian goals. Tragically, there will indeed be costs to American credibility for failing to act in Syria now that Obama has drawn his red line. Yet the costs in political will of a narrow yes vote, followed by failure and trouble will be at least as great, if not greater.

Ultimately, the only way to win back the public for a strong American foreign-policy is to convince them that their leaders understand the difference between what is in our core national interests and what is not. To begin to make that case, we had best vote no.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.