President Obama faces a radically different public-opinion environment than he did even two years ago, when the U.S. prepared to act against Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya, as he seeks to make the case for an attack in Syria. Why are things so different now? It's not as simple as that the public is "war-weary," as is frequently said. Here are some of the other forces I believe to be at work:
1. 9/11 is a distant memory. The threat of terrorism once exerted a strong sway on Americans, creating an automatic bias toward action. That's no longer the case. This is good! It's a sign of the success of the more than decade-long campaign against al-Qaeda. But it also means that the emotional backdrop of our thinking about external threats and obligations has shifted. In the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations, in particular, Americans are in the thick of a moment of reconsidering what they agreed to -- and what was done without their knowledge -- in their moments of greatest fear, and not an era of fearfully agreeing to things without debate. When George W. Bush warned in 2002 "we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," his warning came against the backdrop of orange alerts and panicked runs on hardware stores for plastic sheeting and duct tape. Times have changed, and without engaging in Bush-style fearmongering about threats to the homeland or making a humanitarian case for intervention, as in Libya, it's going to be harder for any political leader to sell the once-burned, twice-shy public on the need for rapid action abroad.