Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment

Yesterday, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment, the first of several reports on the 2014 Chicago Council Survey. Below are a selection of key findings from the report, which you can find in full at Be sure to follow @ChicagoCouncil@IvoHDaalder, @RoguePollster, and @ckafura for continuing discussion of the 2014 Survey results. 

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Among much of the political elite today, a specter is haunting America—the specter of isolationism. Since the last Chicago Council Survey in 2012, many policymakers, politicians, and pundits have come to question the continued willingness of Americans to engage in world affairs. As global troubles brew in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, some claim that the public is turning inward and resistant to any sort of US military intervention. And they have used public opinion polling to argue their points.

Public continues to support an active role for the United States in world affairs.

But a new survey by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, conducted from May 6 to 29, 2014, demonstrates that isolationism is not the appropriate term to describe current public opinion. Public support for international engagement remains solid, with six in ten Americans in favor of an active role in world affairs. At the same time, four in ten Americans now say the US should stay out of world affairs—a proportion that has grown to its highest point since the first Chicago Council Survey in 1974.


The new survey data show that this growing desire among Americans to “stay out” of world affairs is linked to increased criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a decreased sense of threat, a long-standing desire to focus on domestic problems, and an increased divide among Republicans on this question. But the data do not show a desire to disengage from the world. Instead, results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey confirm continued, and in some cases even growing support for US international involvement, especially when it comes to nonmilitary forms of engagement.

Indeed, the most striking finding of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey is the essential stability of American attitudes toward international engagement, which have not changed all that much since the Council conducted its first public opinion survey 40 years ago. As they have for four decades, Americans support strong US international leadership, place primacy on protecting American jobs over other foreign policy goals, favor diplomacy with countries that are hostile toward the United States, support participation in many international treaties and agreements, and endorse trade despite economic setbacks. Americans remain selective about when they will support putting US troops in harm’s way, but are most likely to do so in response to top threats or humanitarian crises.

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American Public Opposes Arming Rebels in Syria

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

With the conflict in Syria well into its fourth year, Chicago Council Survey results from May 2014 show that a majority of the American public does not see the conflict in Syria as a critical threat to the United States. While the Obama administration has proposed $500 million to train and arm rebel groups in Syria, Americans oppose sending arms and supplies to anti-government groups in Syria. Instead, a majority of the public favors increasing diplomatic and economic sanctions on Syria and half say they would support enforcing a no-fly zone.

One in four Americans see conflict in Syria as a critical threat

At the time of this survey, only a quarter (24%) of Americans saw the continuing conflict in Syria as a critical threat. A majority (61%) considered it an important but not critical threat. This is far lower than other threats asked about in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, placing 19th out of 20 threats to the U.S.


While some politicians have called for a greater US role in Syria, only one in four Americans think the United States is not doing enough (26%). Half (50%) think that the US government is currently doing about the right amount on Syria, with two in ten (20%) saying it is doing too much.

Continued opposition to arming rebels

Americans remain opposed to providing material support to rebel groups in Syria. One in four (25%) say that they would support the United States and its allies sending arms and supplies to anti-government groups in Syria, while seven in ten (70%) oppose doing so. Americans said much the same in 2012, when 67 percent opposed arming rebel groups.

Support for arming rebel groups in Syria is highest among those Americans who say the US is not doing enough, but a majority of this group still opposes sending arms and supplies (40% support, 57% oppose). Larger majorities among those who say the US is doing the right amount (74%, 23% support) or too much (85%, 15% support) oppose sending weapons and supplies.

Solid majority endorse increased sanctions on Syria

After asking for assessments of the US government’s current approach to Syria, respondents were presented with several specific options that could be taken. Two in three Americans (67%) support increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria. This is a slight increase from 2012, when 63 percent of the public supported increasing sanctions on the Assad regime.

Americans divided on Syrian no-fly zone

Though Americans seem fairly satisfied with the current approach to Syria, there is a relatively high level of public support for enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria, including bombing Syrian air defenses. On this issue, the public is evenly divided, with 48 percent in support and 47 percent opposed. This level of support is consistent whether the operation is part of a United Nations Security Council authorized military mission or if done as part of a coalition of like-minded allies (48% support for each).

As might be expected, support for enforcing a no-fly zone is highest among those Americans who say the US is not doing enough on Syria (65%, 32% oppose). Meanwhile, Americans who say the government is doing about the right amount on Syria are divided on the issue (50% support, 46% opposed). ). Those who say the government is doing too much oppose a no-fly zone (71%, vs. 28% in support).


Few want to send troops into Syria, but more support peacekeeping mission

Many Americans are also open to the idea of contributing US troops to a peacekeeping mission in Syria if a peace agreement is reached. A sizable minority (44%) say they would support sending troops to enforce that agreement, with 55 percent opposed. Other than for peacekeeping, though, the idea of sending US troops to Syria is unpopular with the American public: fewer than two in ten (17%) support the US sending troops to Syria. Even those Americans who say the US is not doing enough on Syria are hesitant to put boots on the ground: only a quarter of this group favor sending troops.

Support for sending troops appears to be linked to a sense of moral obligation, national interest and a belief that US intervention would make a difference. When those who supported sending troops to Syria were asked the reason for their support, they most frequently cited that the US had a moral obligation to act, it would make a difference in stopping the war, or that it was in our national interest to act. Fewer said they supported sending troops to Syria because the mission was likely to succeed, people around the world would view it as a legitimate action, the risk of American lives would be low, or the financial cost would be acceptable. Those opposed to sending troops to Syria cited the risks to American lives, doubts that the situation is vital to US national interest, potential financial costs, and skepticism that US intervention would make a difference.

Public opposes accepting Syrian refugees into United States

A majority of Americans (55%) oppose accepting Syrian refugees into the United States, while four in ten (42%) support doing so. This opposition appears to reflect American concerns about immigrants and refugees more broadly. Indeed, Americans who see large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US as a critical threat are far less likely to support accepting Syrian refugees (19%) than those Americans who see it as an important but not critical threat (51%), or not an important threat at all (61%).

There are also differences among age groups when it comes to admitting Syrian refugees into the United States: a majority of Americans under the age of 45 support taking in refugees (52%; 45% opposed), while a majority of Americans older than 45 oppose doing so (64%; 32% support).

Democrats more likely to support peacekeeping; Republicans more opposed to refugees

As is generally the case with peacekeeping missions, Democrats are more likely to support sending troops (54%, vs. 38% of Republicans and Independents). Republicans, meanwhile, are more likely to support enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria (55%, vs. 49% of Democrats and 42% of Independents). Americans who say they identify as part of or sympathize with the Tea Party movement are more likely to support a no-fly zone as well (59%, vs. 47% of non-tea partiers). Note that among those who consider themselves a part of or identify with the Tea Party movement (12% overall), 49 percent identify as Republicans, 18 percent as Democrats, and 31 percent as Independents.

When it comes to refugees, there are strong partisan divisions as well. A majority of Democrats (55%) support taking in refugees from Syria, though only a quarter of Republicans (27%) and four in ten Independents (40%) agree. This fits with partisans’ differing levels of concern about immigrants and refugees coming to the United States, which a majority of Republicans (55%) see as a critical threat. In contrast, only two in ten Democrats (21%) say the same, while Independents split the difference (42%).

On other issues, as is usually the case in foreign policy, partisans agree. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents oppose sending troops into Syria, oppose arming anti-government groups, and support increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria.

About the 2014 Chicago Council Survey

This analysis is based on data from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey and previous Chicago Council Surveys of the American public on foreign policy. The survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide research panel between May 6 to May 29, 2014 among a national sample of 2,108 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error for the overall sample is ± 2.1 percentage points.

A full report on the results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey will be released on September 15.

The 2014 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, and the United States-Japan Foundation.


A little more nuance about US, European public opinion on Syria

Marc Lynch of George Washington University recently debuted his arrival at the Monkey Cage with an analysis of  281 polling figures on American attitudes on Syria on The Monkey Cage (see “The Problem with #WithSyria”).  Based on these survey results, he concluded that many Americans are following the situation in Syria,  care about the situation but do not feel the US government has a responsibility to intervene in Syria, and  want to help by providing humanitarian aid – but they don’t support the US government taking more forceful action.

I agree with these conclusions, but wanted to highlight a few other findings as well.

At least earlier in the crisis, there was some American support for action beyond humanitarian efforts

Though not necessarily majorities, some surveys showed that earlier in the crisis, a substantial portion of the American public were willing to do something more than humanitarian efforts, especially if there was proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its people. In a Pew survey conducted April 2013, more Americans favored (45%) than opposed (31%) the U.S. and its allies taking military action against Syria, “if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons against anti-government groups” (23% didn’t know).  It’s important to note that this question was also presented as a multilateral action, which is typically more palatable to Americans.  A May 2013 CNN/ORC survey found that two in three (66%) Americans said that the US would be justified in using military action against the Syrian government “if the US were able to present evidence that convinced you that the Syrian government has chemical weapons and has used them to kill civilians in that country.”  And an ABC News/Washington Post poll from December 2012 reported majority (63%) support for military action in Syria if it used chemical weapons against its own people. A majority also supported US military involvement if Syria attacked neighboring US allies (69%) or lost control of its chemical weapons (70%).

The same December 2012 ABC News/Washington Post survey showed that six in ten (62%) of Americans supported the use of US military aircraft to create a no-fly zone, if no ground troops were involved. And while dated at this point, the 2012 Chicago Council survey found that Americans were willing to support sanctions against Syria, and possibly more.  Even before the violence spread into Damascus in 2012, a majority supported increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Syrian regime (63%).  Nearly as many said they would support enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria (58%), though a majority opposed bombing Syrian air defenses (72% opposed)- which in this case, would likely be necessary to impose a no-fly zone. Despite this disconnect between supporting a no-fly zone and opposing strikes against Syrian targets, in my view, these numbers represented an underlying desire (at least back then) across partisan differences, to move a step in between sanctions and what it would take to enforce a no-fly zone.

Later, when possible military action became closer to a possible reality, public opposition toward forceful action increased.  Though Pew did not repeat the same question they asked in April 2013 when a plurality supported taking multilateral military action, they did find that opposition to US airstrikes against Syria had increased dramatically from 48 percent in August 2013 to 63 percent in September 2013. In this case, the response was presented as a US unilateral response, which was being discussed at the time, and is always less popular than a multilateral initiative. In another example, ABC News/Washington Post surveys from August and September 2013 similarly reported an increase in opposition to US missile strikes (from 59% to 64%).

Some European support for similar types of engagement   

The German Marshall Fund’s 2013 Transatlantic Trends asked Europeans and Americans whether their countries should either intervene in Syria, where the government had  been using military force to suppress an opposition movement, or stay out completely.  Not surprisingly, when presented with just these two options, majorities in the US and Europe wanted to stay out.  But when given a wider range of alternatives, there was some more variation in opinion.

CNN commissioned an online survey in the UK, France and Germany in August 2013, after accusations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people.  While online surveys in Europe (as well as most in the US) are not yet up to the standards of a random, representative surveys,  their findings can be suggestive.  In this case, when prompted with the Syrian government’s possible use of chemical weapons in the question, a majority in Germany (55%) and substantial minorities in the UK (46%) and France (39%) supported tightening economic sanctions.  There was some support for “Western nations” establishing a no-fly zone  (41% in Germany, 34% in UK, 31% in France). But as in the US case, fewer favored airstrikes against Syrian military targets (32% in France 20% in Germany, 16% in the UK).  Three in ten in the UK (30%) and France (27%) and somewhat fewer in Germany (22%) preferred to do nothing. [Poll respondents were allowed to choose more than one option from a list of “most appropriate responses,” which included tightening sanctions, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, striking Syria with missiles, invading with a ground force, and doing nothing]. 

Americans supported the Russian-brokered deal regarding Syria’s chemical weapons

While a slim majority of Americans in several surveys say they disapprove of the way President Obama is handling the Syria crisis, we can’t tell whether this disapproval is because people think the US is not doing enough or whether it has done too much. No doubt, this assessment is also highly partisan in nature.  Nevertheless, majorities in several surveys show overall approval for the deal to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. A September 2013 Quinnipiac University Poll found that 71 percent supported a “plan to avert a United States military strike on Syria by having international monitors take control of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons” (19% opposed).  And a September 2013 CBS News/NYTimes poll similar found that 82 percent of Americans favored the plan reached by Russian officials “that would involve the government of Syria turning over all of its chemical weapons to international weapons inspectors” (15% opposed). That said, a majority (66%) thought it was unlikely that the Syrian government would turn over all of its chemical weapons to international inspectors.

All this to say that earlier in the crisis, when it was perhaps easier to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys, there was some segment of public support for perhaps doing more.  Sadly, Syria seems to be off the public radar these days with more recent attention on Ukraine.  Stay tuned for a posting on that topic next.

Qualitative Interviews with Syrians on Transitional Justice

By Dina Smeltz and Nabeel Khoury

Today’s post is based on qualitative in-depth interviews among Syrians that were conducted by Charney Research in partnership with the The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), a Syrian-led and multilaterally-supported nonprofit. The SJAC seeks to generate discussion and increase awareness about transitional justice issues among legal specialists and the Syrian public. Qualitative results are not representative of the population as a whole, but they offer some anecdotal insights into the views of these particular participants. (Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data.)

In August 2013, SJAC and Charney commissioned 46 in-depth interviews with Syrian adults living within and outside Syria on issues related to transitional justice.  Locations included Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqah, Hama, Homs, al-Qamishli, Turkey and Jordan. Interviewers spoke with both regime supporters and opponents, as well as some internally displaced and refugees, about how Syria can begin to address the abuses and losses due to the conflict.

The project report notes that all wars eventually end — “and when they do, it is increasingly common that there is a reckoning for abuses committed during the conflict.” Provisions for transitional justice can be a crucial aspect to negotiated settlement, even if one side ultimately prevails.

The analysis showed that most of those interviewed preferred a negotiated settlement as the only way to stop the fighting, but they were skeptical that such an agreement is possible. Their skepticism was borne out by other interview findings: many regime opponents would accept exile for President Assad as part of a negotiated end to the violence, while other regime opponents rejected this and insisted that he should be held accountable. By contrast, regime supporters would not consider exile for Assad, even as part of a settlement.

There is some hope for peaceful coexistence between regime supporters and opponents after the war.  Most respondents  said that post-conflict they would be willing to live with neighbors who had different political views or who had left their homes during the conflict, except for violent or armed groups.  But some also rejected coexistence outright.

Transitional Justice Options: While most agreed that the rule of law should prevail in post-war Syria, participants disagreed on whether due process currently exists. Most support prosecution of human rights violators on both sides of the conflict. Of the options presented – trials, truth commissions, and compensation – trials were the most popular approach. While there was some disagreement on whether new courts were needed or existing courts would suffice, most of those interviewed wanted violators brought before Syrian courts, without international participation. Compensation was seen as a means of redressing economic damage. Those who lost earners, property, jobs, or businesses were seen as the highest priorities for compensation.

Very few among those interviewed had heard of truth commissions, but they were receptive to the idea — particularly to the evidence gathering and compensation components. Despite this receptivity, the report notes that many found the suggestion of a truth commission offering amnesty for confession, as in the case of South Africa, unacceptable, and said it was essential that offenders be prosecuted.

At this point, Geneva I and II have produced not even created a hint of agreement, and there is still no end game in sight.  In fact, the regime of Bashar al-Assad (and its supporters) may believe the war is ultimately winnable. We caution that these interviews were conducted as fighting raged, emotions ran high and fears on both sides were – and still are – abundant. And these individual interviews also do not represent the Syrian population at large. But we find it interesting that these participants revealed some contradictions between desires to end the fighting and mend the rifts in Syrian society and an urge to see accountability via the Syrian court system.  Given the complexity of the tragedy, attempts to prosecute all the criminals involved once the guns fall silent will be a traumatic reckoning for Syrian society.  Our best guess is that feelings and opinions may look a little different if the military balance on the ground changes, or if both sides exhaust themselves on the battlefields and finally come to terms.

On Syria – Public Perspectives

As the debate over taking action in Syria continues, I wanted to share  a few interesting pieces on Syria and public opinion in advance of President Obama’s address to the nation tomorrow night.

CNN’s Global Public Square blog posted an article by Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (and a member of the 2012 Chicago Council Survey team), that discusses the importance of question wording (or “framing”) of the Syria issue in recent US public opinion polls. Reviewing a series of American public opinion survey results from ABC/Washington Post, NBC, CNN, and other surveys, Kull concludes that the US public tends to oppose military action if it is presented as an attack against the Syrian government and not specifically against chemical weapons capabilities. When presented as a targeted strike against chemical weapons capabilities, however, there is plurality support for action.

Foreign Policy also highlights two interesting articles related to Syria. One is written by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland  discussing Arab opinion on American credibility. For Arabs in the region, Telhami argues, American credibility on the use of force is not the issue. The issue is deep suspicion of US goals: “even if the United States intervenes in Syria under humanitarian auspices, it will be seen as nefarious.” He also believes that Arab views have probably not been affected by the use of chemical weapons, but that the factors in Arab views are humanitarian, sectarian, and strategic.

The other Foreign Policy article is by Marc Lynch of George Washington University and FP’s The Middle East Channel. He asserts that while Arab leaders may play the credibility card on the costs of inaction on Syria, these views do not extend to the Arab Street. Lynch cites a September 2012 survey by the Center for Strategic Studies among Jordanians showing only 5 percent support for foreign military intervention (despite widely unfavorable views of Assad), and a May 2013 Pew survey showing six in ten Egyptians and Tunisians opposed to arming Syrian rebels (again, despite unfavorable views of Assad). He then turns to an analysis of current Arab broadcast and social media and how they are creating more polarized and insular political and identity groups. Lynch (and his colleagues Deen Freelon and Sean Aday) made this conclusion after analyzing nearly 40 million tweets about Syria in English and Arabic over a 28-month period and discovered a clustering effect in the data.  Their takeaway is that in contrast to the unified Arab public reaction to the Egyptian revolution or the US military action in Iraq, we should expect a more fragmented response to developments in Syria.

It would be really interesting to see polling results from the Arab world that framed the issue in different ways to demonstrate the impact of perceived motives. Judging from the data so far, it seems that US action would probably viewed less in altruistic terms and more as US interference in the Middle East.