Inter Press Service
Despite strenuous efforts by prominent neo-conservatives and other hawks, a war-weary U.S. public is clearly very leery of any armed intervention in what many experts believe is rapidly becoming a civil war in Syria, according to recent polls.
In a survey released last week, the Pew Research Center found that only 25 percent of respondents said they believed the U.S. has a "responsibility to do something" about the year-old violence in Syria, in which more than 7,500 people have died, while nearly two thirds (64 percent) answered the question negatively.
Similarly, only 25 percent said they would favour the U.S. and its allies bombing Syrian military forces to protect anti-government groups, an idea put forward by the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, two weeks ago, and quickly endorsed by his two fellow-hawks, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Independent Joseph Lieberman.
Although promoted by various think tanks, notably the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and embraced by Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, among others, the proposal has failed to gain traction, even among the most hawkish of the Republican presidential candidates.
Their silence on the issue appears to be due to several factors, not the least of which is the fact that the primary campaign has been overwhelmingly focused on domestic issues, especially the economy and social questions dear to the heart of the Christian Right, including abortion, gay marriage, and even contraception.
To the extent the Republican campaign has dealt at any length with foreign-policy questions, it has been dominated by the threat to Israel and the U.S. that is allegedly posed by Iran's nuclear programme and whether Washington should provide Israel with all the weapons it needs to strike Tehran's nuclear facilities or carry out an attack itself.
Recent serious setbacks in Afghanistan – particularly the recent massacre in Kandahar Province of 16 innocent civilians, including nine children, by a U.S. sergeant, and President Hamid Karzai's subsequent demand that U.S. combat forces be made subject to much tighter constraints – has also crept into the campaign in a way that appears to have actually reduced the hawkishness of the three leading candidates. Two of the three, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, have even suggested that perhaps Washington should accelerate the withdrawal of its 90,000 troops there.
In this context, Syria is gaining little public attention, and neither the administration nor Democrats in Congress are doing much to promote it.
The Pentagon, much to the chagrin of neo-conservative commentators like Max Boot and Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations, has made opposition to any military intervention in Syria clear, just as it did in Libya one year ago.
While admitting that the demise of the Bashar al-Assad regime would deal a major strategic blow against Iran, top military commanders have also insisted that Damascus's air defences are five times more effective than those faced by U.S. warplanes in Libya and that any air strikes would risk much greater collateral damage due to the fact that the same air defences are located in urban areas.
They, as well as the administration's civilian leadership, have also raised questions about the composition and disunity of the opposition, a reservation that appears to have become more worrisome even to Republican hawks amidst reports that Al Qaeda-affiliated units may be responsible for the latest, highly lethal bombings in Aleppo and Damascus itself.
The hawks have argued that the Pentagon is exaggerating the power of Syria's military capabilities, noting, for example, that Israel, with far fewer assets, wiped out virtually the entire Syrian air force in a matter of hours during its invasion of southern Lebanon 30 years ago and, 25 years later, successfully bombed a presumed nuclear reactor without even being detected by Damascus' air defences.
They have also argued that Washington should intervene, if only by supplying arms directly or indirectly through neighbouring states, precisely to give a leg up to opposition forces that are friendly – or at least not hostile – to Washington in any post-Assad government.
But the public is clearly reluctant. Asked about sending arms to opposition groups, only 29 percent told Pew that they would favour such a course; 63 percent opposed it.
A more detailed poll released here early Tuesday by the University of Maryland's Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) obtained similar results. It was conducted just before the Pew survey and at the same time that McCain called for deploying U.S. and allied air power against Syria's military to protect the opposition.
Two thirds of the poll's respondents said they favoured the idea of establishing "safe havens" for civilians and opposition forces in Syria if they were established by the Arab League and Turkey.
Under such circumstances, respondents were roughly evenly split on whether Washington should agree to provide air cover to protect the havens but were overwhelmingly opposed (77 percent) to sending U.S. troops to help defend them.
By a 37-56 percent margin, they also opposed any role for the U.S. in supplying the opposition with arms. Asked whether they would support such an option if the Arab League asked the U.S. to help, respondents were even more opposed: only 27 percent said they should go along with such a request; 66 percent rejected the idea.
Remarkably, self-described political independents – who are likely to be the swing voters in the November elections – were considerably more opposed to any intervention than either Democrats or Republicans, according to the poll.
"Clearly, Americans are feeling concerned about the situation in Syria, …and support outside countries in the region taking steps to protect civilians at risk," said Steven Kull, PIPA's director. "But they are divided about U.S. air power getting involved and clearly do not want to send ground troops."
Indeed, the results suggest that the public is very comfortable with the concept of Washington "leading from behind" on Syria, the phrase used last summer by one White House insider to describe President Barack Obama's low-profile intervention in Libya.
Much ridiculed since by hawks as a revealing admission of Obama's lack of confidence in U.S. "exceptionalism", the phrase appears to fit the present mood.