There is not much discussion yet about the impact of
the current Syrian crisis on domestic U.S. politics in
next year’s national mid-term elections, but there will
be soon enough.
What is so curious about this crisis is that the usual
“rules” are not being observed in public opinion,
specifically, that the public almost always rallies around
a president when he is about to launch an international
Every public opinion poll I’ve seen shows American
voters overwhelmingly opposed to Mr. Obama’s call for
support for military action to punish the Syrian
government for the recent use of chemical warfare
against Syrian civilians. That public opinion is not only
negative to “boots on the ground,” but also to bombing
and/or missile attacks.
Initial soundings among members of Congress shows
that the U.S. senate is much more likely to grant the
president that support, but even that is not certain
inasmuch as the early “whip” count shows about 40
senators in favor and 25 against. But many incumbent
Democratic senators are up for re-election next year, and
a “yes” vote for military action against Syria could have
hitherto unplanned negative electoral consequences.
Moreover, should opponents decide to wage a filibuster,
the supporters of the president would need 60 votes to
bring their “sense” of the senate to an actual vote.
In the U.S. house, however, the early “whip” count is
overwhelmingly negative. In fact, combining already
committed “no” votes with strongly leaning “no” votes,
the opposition already has a tentative majority. Those
committed to support the president are only so far about
35 (there are now about 220 votes likely to vote “no”).
Of course, Mr. Obama has cards yet to play. General
Petraeus has endorsed his action, as have numerous
Republican establishment figures, including the GOP
speaker of the house and the majority leader. Leaders
in both the house and senate, however, are calling this a
“conscience” vote, that is, the usual “whip” procedures
will not be observed.
House and senate members up for re-election next year
cannot ignore the public opinion polls, especially if their
races are in any way close.
If the administration makes this a vote about Mr. Obama’s
“credibility,” they risk losing undecided Republican votes.
There is also the reality that, as a foreign policy player,
Mr. Obama’s reputation already is at a low point.
With Pope Francis inserting himself so forcefully into this
crisis by opposing any military action by the U.S., an
important “humanitarian” segment of the population,
grass roots Catholic voters, have received a strong signal
to oppose any proposed U.S. action. A number of Catholic
members of Congress are currently listed as “undecided,”
and are now perhaps less inclined to support the
Pro-Israel groups, including those considered conservative,
have so far been supportive of Mr. Obama’s proposed
military action, and are lobbying members of Congress to
vote “yes,” but short of military action that would promote
“regime change” in Syria, the case has not yet been made
how limited or symbolic bombing significantly enhances
It is true that part of the opposition to military action is
being fueled by "isolationist" groups on the right (and left),
and pacifist groups on the left, but the overwhelming
numbers of the opposition in public opinion polls could not
exist if it were not that most Americans in the political
center (who are neither isolationist nor pacifist) also
opposed token or symbolic military actions in Syria, and
were weary of military efforts that produce no decisive
Spokespersons for the Obama administration are now saying
that military action would significantly degrade Mr. Assad’s
air and ground forces, and would punish him for the use of
chemical weapons against his own civilian population.
Supporters of the president’s action, on both sides of the
aisle, cite the high quality of the U.S. military forces and its
capabilities as an assurance that any U.S. action would
“make a big difference” in the Syrian civil war.
But lacking a public and credible explicit plan (which given
the nature of warfare is admittedly probably not possible),
the withdrawal of our main ally, Great Britain, from any
campaign (because of strong British public opinion against
military action), and the political ambiguity of the Syrian
opposition to the Assad regime, it is difficult to see how
U.S. public opinion is going to change in the near future.
If U.S. voters were merely split on this issue, it might be
possible to turn the vote in Congress around, but with such
overwhelming public opposition now registering, it might
well be self-immolating for any member of Congress to
support new military action in Syria just a year ahead of
national mid-term elections, especially in the context of a
foreign policy which is timid, undefined, and so far,
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.