One of the explanations most often cited for President Obama’s maddeningly tentative approach to Syria — for his initial reluctance to get involved, his decision to seek congressional cover, and for the probability that a strike, if ever it comes, will be limited in scope — is the opposition of the American public. Officials and pundits point to polls, like a Sept. 3 Pew survey showing that just 29 percent of Americans endorse airstrikes, and conclude that the president’s hands are tied.
It would make sense if the White House was worried by such numbers. (A study published by Pew this summer shows that isolationism has reached record levels — a result, no doubt, of the deceptions and failures of the Iraq war and 12 bloody years in Afghanistan.)
But the story need not end there. The relationship between public opinion and foreign policy is actually quite complicated and fluid. A look at other recent conflicts reveals that far from being immutable, Americans’ views of armed intervention can shift quickly and dramatically — and that there’s a great deal a president can do to bring a skeptical public on board.
Studying six of the last major U.S. military operations — the Gulf War, Haiti, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — highlights a few basic principles that should give the Obama administration confidence to forge ahead on Syria today.
The first two principles are obvious: Americans are most enthusiastic about military action when their country has been attacked (which explains why the Afghanistan invasion enjoyed 90 percent support in an October 2001 Gallup poll) or feels threatened (as with Iraq, which 59 percent of the public backed on the eve of the conflict, again according to Gallup). They’re least gung-ho when national security does not seem directly implicated (as in Haiti, which got only 31 percent approval at the start).
This might make it sound like Syria is a nonstarter. But as the other recent conflicts suggest, low initial numbers need not be fatal. Neither Libya, Kosovo nor even the Gulf War were wildly popular at the start, with public approval ratings at 27, 46 and 55 percent respectively. But by the end of each, the numbers had risen significantly: by at least 10 points in the case of Libya, 22 points for Kosovo, and by roughly 25 percent for the Gulf War, according to a New York Times/CBS survey.
According to pollsters and others who study such data, there are several reasons wars can become more popular as they progress. First, according to Craig Charney, a political scientist with extensive international and domestic polling experience (including work for the Clinton administration), Americans rally round the flag when the fighting starts, though the bump can be short-lived.
Second, as the academics Joseph Grieco, Christopher Gelpi, Jason Reifler and Peter Feaver argue in a May 2011 article in International Studies Quarterly, the broader a domestic and international coalition a president can build, and the more he can share burdens with partners, the more supportive the public becomes. So NATO’s authorization of the Kosovo campaign, congressional and international support for the Gulf War and a U.N. stamp on the Libya air war all made a big impact on Americans, since the public tends to rely on cues from international organizations “to provide them with a ‘second opinion”’ on the wisdom and legitimacy of using force.
Third, good salesmanship is vital, especially if U.S. interests don’t seem threatened. Here the Gulf War is most instructive. Getting Americans to care about the invasion of a tiny oil-rich emirate (Kuwait) by Saddam Hussein seemed impossible at first. But President George H.W. Bush did a good job tying the conflict not to a vague principle (Kuwait’s territorial integrity) but to one that hit Americans where they lived: the price of oil. Not taking any chances, the Bush administration also worked hard to link Saddam to Hitler in the public mind.
The last thing all these interventions illustrate is that nothing succeeds like success. Perhaps the biggest reason the public changed its mind about the Gulf War, Kosovo and Libya is that they were all relatively short, cheap — and above all successful. The pollster Andrew Kohut points out that during the 78 days of the Kosovo campaign, American approval started to sag — until Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic caved in in the face of relentless NATO bombing and pulled his troops out of the contested province, at which point U.S. public support leapt up. Conclusion: Americans really like winning, and will forgive a lot if they do.
So what does this all mean for the Obama administration and Syria? First, that the White House was right — politically, if not strategically — to seek Congress’s signoff, since the Gulf War illustrated how doing so can reassure an unsteady electorate.
Second, bringing international allies on board is critical, as Secretary of State John Kerry is trying desperately to do right now — albeit with limited success outside of France and Turkey.
Third, the president needs to sell, sell and sell. If Obama hopes to get the public behind airstrikes, he needs to get over (or at least obscure) his own palpable ambivalence and explain in blunt terms why Syria’s civil war and the use of chemical weapons there matters. He should make U.S. objectives and strategy clear. And then he should repeat his case loudly and often.
So far Kerry has done a fine job of this (he’s even invoked Munich). But Obama hasn’t, and the result is that a mere 32 percent of the U.S. public (according to the Sept. 3 Pew survey) understands why he plans to strike Syria. That must change, starting with his speech Tuesday.
One final note. Even if the administration doesn’t end up convincing its allies, Congress, or the public of the merits of attacking Bashar al-Assad, the history of recent U.S. interventions shows that the public may still rally — if the action ends well.
On the one hand, that should frighten Obama, for the scariest thing about armed conflicts is that they’re never predictable. Viewed another way, however, it should stiffen his spine. How the public feels about war and peace matters, but shouldn’t make up the president’s mind for him. At the end of the day, the most important lesson to be learned from studying past poll numbers is that the White House should focus hardest on getting its policy right and fighting a successful campaign — and trust that if it does, the American people will probably come around.