Behind the Numbers

How Far Would Americans Go to Save Syria?

Not as far as ground troops.

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog

A massacre of more than 100 civilians last week -- including women and children -- cast a pall on U.N. peacekeeping efforts in Syria, provoking near-universal international condemnation. Many in Washington are frustrated, and are urging the United States do, well, something. But a key question lingers for Americans: Do they actually want to use their own military might to stop the killing in Syria?

The answer is probably no, at least for now. A smattering of polls this year show little support for getting U.S. troops involved in Syria, but long-term trends show big majorities of Americans favoring using U.S. troops to stop governments from committing genocide mass killings. The divergent poll results may reflect a pro-intervention philosophy running up against a Syrian crisis that lacks an easy military solution or clear international support for the use of force. Nevertheless, the results illuminate how the public is grappling with the issue right now.


Let's start with evidence against support for an invasion. By a 78 to 14 percent margin, registered voters in a March Fox News poll said the United States should not "put troops on the ground" in Syria. The introduction to that survey question was about as sharp as it could be, noting that the "current dictatorial regime" has "killed more than 7,000 of its own people to try to end the rebellion." And still, nearly eight in 10 said "no" to troops. Air support to protect anti-government groups was somewhat more popular, but the only proposal for Syrian action that gained majority support in the Fox survey was providing humanitarian aid -- 82 percent backed this measure.

After a round of severe and highly publicized bombing in Homs in February, a CNN poll found similar reluctance to do anything. Just 25 percent said the United States had a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria; 73 percent said it did not. Twice as many -- 50 percent -- said countries other than the United States have a duty to intervene.

The raw political calculus for U.S. President Barack Obama -- if based on his experience last year in Libya -- does not predict a windfall of public support or satisfaction even if intervention did result in regime change. Obama's Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has criticized the president's actions so far as a "policy of paralysis" and advocated arming anti-government groups. Such a proposal also receives little support from the public -- just 25 percent in the Fox News poll.

But there's another strain of polling that hints at broader support for military action, particularly in the case of genocide. More than seven in 10 Americans supported the use of U.S. troops "to stop a government from committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people," according to a 2010 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The finding was no one-year fluke: The idea had at least 69 percent support in biennial surveys since 2002, with little falloff during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The two results may seem contradictory. On the one hand, Americans are willing to use their own military to step in the way of genocide, but on the other they overwhelmingly oppose such action to prevent such violence in the specific case of Syria.

The Chicago Council survey provides some clues for the divergence. When asked about specific scenarios, support was lower for joining a peacekeeping force in Darfur (56 percent) and still lower for ensuring a peace agreement was kept between Israel and the Palestinians (49 percent).

It may be that Americans have an idea that the United States should intervene in the worst of humanitarian circumstances, but that the military cannot go to every nation where violence breaks out, especially without support from NATO or the United Nations. Syria certainly appears to be in crisis territory, but Americans are not paying a great deal of attention. In addition to a presidential election, the public's gaze is largely stuck on the economy. Fully 37 percent of the public said in April they were following the violence in Syria "not at all closely" in a Pew Research Center poll.

The latest and most shocking violence could change that dynamic, but like the road to peace in Syria, public support military intervention appears to have a long way to go.

STR/AFP/GettyImages

Behind the Numbers

The Cairo Consensus

Will Egyptian voters cast their ballot against the United States and Israel?

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

A burgeoning democracy movement has energized Egypt, culminating in unprecedented elections that started on Wednesday, May 23. But a poll released this month shows Egyptians are grappling with dual commitments to Islam and basic democratic liberties as the country shifts from decades of autocratic rule. For one, a majority wants Egypt's laws to strictly follow the Quran, and the free and fair election that's hoped for may actually bring bad tidings for Egypt's one-time partners: The United States continues to be widely unpopular and hostility toward Israel is on the rise.

Egyptians united to oust President Hosni Mubarak amid last year's Arab Spring uprisings. Part and parcel to that antipathy was disdain for the United States, a longtime Mubarak ally. Nearly eight in 10 Egyptians had an unfavorable view of the United States, according to a 2011 poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project conducted after the overthrow. About half said their views were "very unfavorable."

Little has changed since then, and a new Pew poll finds scant appreciation for U.S. aid efforts. Egypt has received an average of $2 billion a year from the United States -- largely to their military -- making it the second largest recipient after Israel. But fully six in 10 believe U.S. military and economic aid is having a mostly negative effect on the country.

Even the shimmer of Obama's presidency has worn off on many Egyptians. After a scant 11 percent of Egyptians expressed confidence in George W. Bush in 2008, 42 percent gave positive marks to Obama in advance of his landmark 2009 speech in Cairo -- billed as a "new beginning." The gloss has clearly warn off. In the latest Pew survey, nearly seven in 10 Egyptians now express little confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs.

The widespread rejection of U.S. aid may be surprising given the Egyptians' desire for an economic turnaround. More than seven in 10 say Egypt's economy is in bad shape, a slightly higher percentage than a year ago. But hopes for the future are high, with half of Egyptians thinking the economy will improve over the next year. Just one in five thinks it will get worse. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has pledged more than $2.7 billion in aid to Cairo.

Public opinion forebodes a more perilous predicament for Israel. By two to one, Egyptians want to nullify the nation's peace treaty with that country, a number that's jumped sharply among those under age 30 and those with college educations. That doesn't necessarily indicate a desire to take up arms, but scuttling the treaty would raise already high tensions in the region.

Domestically, Egyptians will have to negotiate a balance between desire for individual liberties and a Islamic-centered government. Fully two-thirds of Egyptians in the new Pew survey say democracy is the best form of government, and wide majorities hailed the importance of a fair judiciary, uncensored media, law and order, freedom of speech, and honest elections.

These priorities are not fundamentally incompatible with all Islamic societies -- even with Islamic governments. But some Egyptian views hint at support for a more hard line theocratic rule. Six in 10 say they want laws to strictly follow the Quran, and just as many say Saudi Arabia is a better model than Turkey for the role of religion in public life, far from an endorsement of secular democracy.

Worryingly, protecting the rights of women and religious minorities is not a key priority for Egyptians right now. Just 41 percent said it was "very important" that women have the same rights as men, and only 38 percent said it was very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities can practice their religion freely.

Altogether, democracy may prove far less predictable than dictatorship in Egypt, bringing big consequences for other democracies, too.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GettyImages