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Weighing War, Peace and Polls

Author: Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
September 9, 2013
International Herald Tribune


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.

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