Behind the Numbers

Don't Count on a Syria Intervention

In the end, Americans just aren't interested in getting involved in promoting democracy overseas.

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Syrian rebels continue to be bombarded by President Bashar al-Assad's forces. And in the wake of a failed Security Council resolution that would have pushed for a transfer of power, the embattled leader shows little sign of giving up the reins -- though he faces mounting international sanctions and efforts by his neighbors to push the nation towards a democratic government.

While harping on the need for Assad to stop the violence, President Barack Obama is throwing cold water on prospects of a Libya-like military intervention. And the administration's reluctance to use force jibes with the philosophy of most Americans, who see spreading democracy as a good thing in general, but are much more ambivalent these days about using the military to topple dictators.

Obama learned this lesson first-hand in the effort to remove Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Just before the president announced the enforcement of a no-fly zone last March, Americans were split roughly evenly on whether this was a good idea, with 49 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The public was somewhat more supportive of the United States acting as a participant in a no-fly zone.

But Obama faced criticism over doing too little or too much in Libya, and his approval rating on the issue teetered throughout the conflict. The public approved of his efforts by 52 percent to 31 percent after Qaddafi's killing, which capped a successful coordination between rebels and NATO forces to take down his regime. Nevertheless, fewer than half the public said the United States did the right thing by using military force in Libya, according to a November Quinnipiac University poll.

Why the lack of enthusiasm for what was probably an ideal outcome for Obama's foreign policy team? In general, Americans don't care too much about swooping in to replace dictators (nor dispatching bogeymen, as we noted last week). Only 13 percent of the public said that promoting democracy in other nations was a top foreign policy priority in a 2011 Pew poll, dead last among other foreign policy objectives, behind human rights and climate change. Protecting jobs of Americans workers and terrorism ranked highest, with over eight in 10 calling each a "top priority."

It's not that democracy isn't seen as something worth promoting, in general. Six in 10 Americans agreed the United States should be promoting democracy around the world in a 2007 Pew Research Center poll. But even more -- 70 percent in a recent CBS News poll -- said that the United States should stay out of other country's affairs rather than try to replace dictatorships. (If that's right, though, shouldn't Ron Paul being doing better?) But even when civilians are under violent attack by their own government, Americans split evenly on military intervention.

The obvious exceptions to this rule are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both involved military invasions to unseat a government that Washington didn't like. But both also involved much more than spreading democracy for its own sake. Afghanistan provided a haven for Osama bin Laden, and Iraq (right or wrong) was seen as having weapons of mass destruction and connections with terrorists.

Take away those factors, and Americans are much more leery to cheer the drumbeat. In a 2006 Fox News poll, the public two to one supported using military force only if "provoked or attacked" by another country.

In an election year with the economy and jobs at the front of voters' minds, a crusading effort to fight for democracy in Syria might seem like a sure bet to shore up popularity. But Obama seems more favorable to sanctions and diplomacy, and for most Americans, that's probably just as well.


Behind the Numbers

The Bin Laden Bounce

Does killing bad guys really help at the ballot box?

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

"For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country," said U.S. President Barack Obama at the top of his State of the Union speech last week. For good measure, he closed his hourlong speech on the same note, speaking of the flag given to him by the Navy SEALs who killed the al Qaeda mastermind. And at a retreat later in the week, Vice President Joe Biden recounted to House Democrats how Obama made the decision to invade bin Laden's hiding place largely on his own, receiving little encouragement from his top advisors. A true presidential moment, we're told.

Obama and his team clearly see eliminating bin Laden as a top administration achievement. It's nearly conventional wisdom at this point that this refrain will be repeated throughout the forthcoming presidential campaign as a singular success. Who doesn't like getting bad guys? But do Americans really reward at the ballot box presidents who take down their bogeymen?

The answer may be disappointing.

Less than a month before bin Laden was killed, Obama held a 47 percent job approval rating in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Immediately after the successful raid, it shot up to 56 percent. But only one month later, Obama's approval was back at 47 percent again -- and he fell as low as 42 percent in the next six months amid continuing economic troubles.

Simply put, no matter the patriotic fervor, there are other issues that matter much more to voters. Even on the issue of terrorism, Obama's ratings have settled back to pre-bin Laden levels. They spiked to a remarkably high 69 percent immediately after the raid, but slipped to 60 percent the next month. Currently, 56 percent approve of Obama on terrorism, according to a January Washington Post-ABC poll, exactly where they were in February of last year. As we've noted before, his relatively strong reviews on terrorism haven't buoyed ratings on foreign policy in general, nor those on his handling of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But perhaps we should have known this already. When it comes to presidents seeing diminished returns for catching the bad guy, there's a good deal of precedent.

George W. Bush got a 4-point bounce when Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. But only two months later, his job approval rating sank below where it was before Saddam's roundup.

His father could have warned him. The elder Bush ended a long-running feud with Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega in early 1990 with a swift invasion and capture, rocketing his already high 66 percent job rating up to 79 percent in a Post-ABC poll. But it sunk back to 65 percent in July before rising the next month with the onset of the Gulf War (also considered a big success by Americans). Of course, Obama would kill for numbers like these now.

The point is that neither military feat kept voters from ousting Bush senior from the White House under the banner of "it's the economy, stupid." Even though Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison just months before the 1992 election, voters didn't go to the voting booth to reward his capture.

So, while Obama shouldn't expect voters to reelect him for taking out bin Laden, there is a reason he won a rousing standing ovation from the joint session of Congress last Tuesday, Jan. 24: Many Americans think of it as his best accomplishment. In a Washington Post-ABC poll last June, finding and killing bin Laden was the No. 1 action Obama did "especially well" as president, some four times the proportion naming any other single accomplishment.

It also may have had a real effect on how safe Americans feel from terrorism. Fully 64 percent of Americans in a September Washington Post-ABC poll said their country was safer from terrorism than before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, up 16 points from 2010 and near the highest on record.

But Americans don't necessarily punish a president for failing to track down an archnemesis. Running against Bush in 2004, Sen. John Kerry said he "would have made Osama bin Laden the priority" rather than focusing on Iraq. The complaint may have fallen on deaf ears. Nearly six in 10 Americans approved Bush's handling of terrorism in a September 2004 Washington Post-ABC poll, and he led Kerry by more than 20 points when it came to whether the public trusted him to handle the issue.

The harsh reality of taking down bogeymen is that once they've been removed from action, Americans may turn to judge the president on other issues. As with Bush in 1992, Obama's 2012 fate hinges on how voters think he's handling the economy, not his vanquishing of America's most despised enemy.

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