WASHINGTON (AP) – Only 1 in 5 Americans believe that failing to respond to chemical weapons attacks in Syria would embolden other rogue governments, rejecting the heart of a weeks-long White House campaign for U.S. military strikes, an Associated Press poll concluded Monday.
The poll of 1,007 adults nationwide found that most Americans oppose even a limited attack on Syria – likely with cruise missiles – despite Obama administration warnings that inaction would risk national security and ignore a gruesome humanitarian crisis. And a slim majority – 53 percent – fear that a strike would lead to a long-term U.S. military commitment in Syria.
The survey reflects a U.S. public that is tired of Mideast wars after a dozen years of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. It undercuts political support President Barack Obama is hoping to garner as he seeks congressional authorization this week to strike the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“We need to stop being so aggressive militarily,” Izzy Briggs, a business services consultant from Epsom, N.H., said Monday. “I think these small countries are feeling very intimidated by the U.S. and some feel they have to have these sorts of weapons.”
U.S. officials have cited a high confidence in intelligence that indicates Assad’s government launched the Aug. 21 attacks that they say killed more than 1,400 Syrians. Obama last year warned Assad that using chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would amount to a “red line” that, if crossed, would bring a swift U.S. response.
In the weeks since the attacks, the administration has argued that hostile governments in Iran and North Korea, and extremist groups like Hezbollah, would be more likely to use weapons of mass destruction in future conflicts if Assad is not punished. To bolster the case, U.S. officials last weekend also released grim video footage showing young children gasping for breath and rows of dead bodies in the hours after the chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs.
But support in Congress is lukewarm at best, and many lawmakers have questioned whether the strikes would create more of a problem for the U.S. than they would help the nearly three year effort to overthrow Assad.
“We must balance the legitimate concerns that Americans have about the use of military force with our strategic interests,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who on Monday announced she would not support the White House plan.
U.S. opposition to striking Syria cuts across party lines, as does doubt that an American attack would deter other world leaders from using chemical weapons.
The poll indicated that 53 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans believe Congress should vote against the plan to strike Syria. Only one out of four Democrats think that an attack would deter other world leaders from acquiring and using chemical weapons; even fewer Republicans and independents agreed.
“It’s not good what they’re doing to their own people, but we don’t want to start World War III,” said Rosie Vega, a retired receptionist who was at a Glendale, Calif., bakery on Monday morning.
Overall, 61 percent of people surveyed said they wanted Congress to vote against authorizing U.S. military strikes in Syria, the poll found. By comparison, 26 percent said they supported it, and the rest were undecided.
Just 16 percent of Americans said they did not think that the limited strikes would lead to a longer military campaign, the poll indicated. And an overwhelming majority – 75 percent – said they do not support sending U.S. troops to Syria. Obama has already pledged that will not happen.
The Syria dilemma has become a major test of Obama’s political mettle on national security and foreign policy issues. After months of resisting U.S. military action in Syria, the White House abruptly reversed course after the Aug. 21 attacks – only to confront withering public support both at home and abroad.
The AP poll found that 54 percent of people do not approve the way Obama has handled the U.S. response to Syria. That marked an increase from the 43 percent in June 2012.
Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington, said Obama is likely to play on Americans’ emotions to convince them to support strikes.
“It is very difficult for a president to persuade people when they’ve already made up their mind against some type of foreign intervention,” West said Monday. “But what he can do is basically explain much better than he has done to date about what has been going on in Syria, the use of chemical weapons, the impact on young children and women there.”
Released Monday, the AP poll was conducted September 6-8 by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,007 adults nationwide. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.