Attacking Syria Is the Least Popular Intervention Idea in Recent Memory

But it would probably get significantly more popular if Obama actually orders a strike.
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It's often said that the U.S. military is perpetually fighting the last war -- and the backlash against President Obama's plan for strikes has shown just how menacingly Iraq looms in the American consciousness. Poll after poll, and call after call into congressional offices, show that war-weary citizens really don't want to attack Syria.

And not only is it unpopular -- it's historically unpopular. Here's a Gallup poll out Friday, with comparisons to other major military operations since 1991, with Syria lagging well behind:

This doesn't tell us everything -- we don't know, for example, how excited Americans were about the 2011 bombing of Libya or, say, the 1998 bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory (presumably there was too little lead-up for Gallup to ask). But it does provide some useful context for the widespread outcry in recent days.

What ought to give folks like Ben Rhodes, Obama's spokesman for national security, ulcers isn't just that strikes against Syria are less popular than past attacks -- it's that their favorability is deeply underwater, with a 15-point deficit between support and opposition. Even if every undecided in this poll were persuaded, it'd still be overall unpopular. Kosovo wasn't well-regarded, as you can see, but the numbers were more or less equal.

So how about some Rolaids for Rhodes? Here's the silver lining for the White House: If Obama does launch cruise missiles and planes, history suggests that citizens will line up to back the troops. Nothing like some good old-fashioned jingoism patriotism! (Gallup calls this "the rally effect.")

With the exception of Iraq (an amazing 18-points), the average post-attack bounce seems to be closer to eight or nine points. A bounce of that size would still leave an attack on Syria with a lower approval rating than disapproval.

One might find it surprising that even though their party made opposition to the Iraq War a litmus test during its 2008 primaries, a slight majority of Democrats (45-43) tell Gallup today that they back intervening in Syria, while Republicans and independents overwhelmingly oppose it. But political scientists have shown that party identification is more based in tribal identity than policy agreement. This is more evidence.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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