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The likely opinion shift on Syria

Conventional wisdom claims that public opposition is one of President Obama’s prime impediments to obtaining congressional approval of military action against Syria.

It shouldn’t be.

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Not that public opinion is unimportant; it is rather that public attitudes have proven remarkably malleable in such circumstances. Indeed, in every case on record, support for military action has surged after hostilities begin, regardless of the level of initial support.

To be sure, relatively few Americans now favor action.

Gallup found opponents outnumbering supporters by 15 points. In a CBS/New York Times poll, only 30 percent favored a military strike, while 61 percent were opposed. The Associated Press pegged the margin against a strike at an even higher 35 points, as did Pew.

Moreover, the Pew poll revealed strong momentum against action. In the course of the last week, support was static, while opposition leapt 15 points, and the “undecided” shrunk. Beneath these numbers lurk some nuances.

For example, after asking about “military action” in general, the NBC survey posited a much more constrained mission definition:

“If U.S. military action in Syria were limited to air strikes using cruise missiles launched from U.S. naval ships that were meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks would you support or oppose this U.S. military action in Syria?”

Americans favored a strike in this formulation by 50 percent to 44 percent.

More important than the nuances, however, is the clear lesson of history that has been almost completely ignored in discussions of public opinion on a Syria strike: Regardless of whether voters favor or oppose committing military force in advance, after the missiles start flying, support always surges, even if things don’t go so well in the short term.

Former President Kennedy famously marveled at the sharp increase in his approval ratings after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. For those who can’t quite recall the details, the word “fiasco” provides a good indication that, even when things don’t turn out so well, Americans tend to rally around presidents at times of international conflict. Voters also rally around the president’s decisions.

In February 1966, Americans opposed bombing Hanoi and Haiphong in Vietnam by 58 percent to 42 percent. In June, bombs were falling on these targets and support shot up to 85 percent. Support for the first Gulf War displayed a similar pattern. Just after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, only 32 percent supported sending U.S. troops to the area. About a week later, after then-President George H.W. Bush announced troops would be sent, support for that decision skyrocketed to 77 percent.

Before former President Clinton committed U.S. forces in the Balkans, a majority of Americans were opposed. After the military effort was engaged, a majority supported it. Before the Iraq War, only 29 percent supported U.S. action without U.N. approval. Yet, immediately after hostilities began, and in direct contravention of the U.N., 75 percent and more expressed support.

Of course, that support is hardly destined to persist indefinitely. It depends very much on whether the public sees success — an elusive term, though, as with pornography, people know it when they see it. If the duration is short, the damage to the regime is meaningful, the damage to innocents is limited, and U.S. troops are not on the ground, an attack on Syria is likely to be deemed successful. Failure to archive any of those goals could well alter public opinion.

Of course, this time could be different. The Iraq experience weighs heavily, leaving Americans deeply suspicious of U.S. action in the Middle East.

And, of course, presidential action in the face of congressional opposition would be a unique circumstance. But history suggests that public opinion is likely to change if and when military action begins.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.