Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Syria: Public Opinion Cul-de-Sac

At the recent World Public Opinion Research Association (WAPOR) meeting in Nice, France, the Middle East was a major topic with many public opinion experts from Middle Eastern countries in participation.  One of their major themes is that a considerable amount of the polling that Americans and the West in general sees from the area fails to reflect the dramatic differences in the 350 million inhabitants spread from Tehran to Cairo, Istanbul to Riyadh. They also believe that many of the surveys, especially as it relates to the Arab-Israeli conflict, fail to offer sufficient balance. There was disagreement on that point, but general agreement that more nuanced and in-depth analyses are needed.

In the winter of 2014, as this proposal was being written, it was clear the Syrian Red Line decision had caused a major increase in worldwide elite conversation about Middle East foreign policy and the administration’s handling of it.

Syria: Public Opinion Cul-de-Sac
In September 2013, President Barack Obama had few good military or diplomatic options for the chemical weapons crisis in Syria and even less public opinion support for the options being considered. However, in late 2012 and early 2013 national public opinion polls showed that many elements of the President’s range of action, including military and other aid to Syrian rebels, had public support. One of those options was taking offensive action if the use or movement of chemical weapons was detected.

This paper will trace the evolution of public opinion from the reluctant support for various military options early in 2013 to the foreclosure of all military actions in September 2013, leaving the President and his national security team in a public opinion cul-de-sac. Obama was only able to break out of this position with a serendipitous lifeline from Russia.

The conclusions from the presentation assert that the Syrian decisions of the administration were a tipping point in their foreign policy confidence and they are still on the defensive.
  • Decision on arming Syrian opposition and Red Line significant for domestic politics and later events
  • Some evidence of public support for Syrian intervention December 2012; little or no support in summer and fall 2013
  • Comparison of public opinion in August 2014 with summer 2013 shows significant difference
  • Public opinion on issue affected was by:
    • Type, duration and goal of commitment
    • Intervening events
    • Level of perceived threat
    • Presidential/elite positioning
    • President’s popularity
  • The Syrian experience will be a significant topic for 2016 presidential election and repositioning of U.S. foreign policy

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