Twelve years after the September 11 tragedy claimed the lives of almost 3,000 Americans, the passionate debate over military intervention in Syria seems to have imbued the anniversary of those attacks with a reflective character. An Economist/YouGov poll reveals that as Americans ponder the role of Washington in shaping global security, increasingly they are concluding that staying out of other countries’ affairs will make the U.S. safer than confronting supporters of terrorism. The results, which were released last Wednesday, indicate a remarkable transformation over the past three years: When polled about the long-run safety benefits of confrontation versus non-intervention in 2010, a majority of respondents supported confrontation. Now the split is 61/39 in favor of non-intervention.
Why such a momentous shift?
The timing of the questions probably played a key role, with opinion polls consistently showing overwhelming opposition to the president’s proposed air strikes to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons capability. The proposal, of course, is not part of the administration’s anti-terrorism efforts. However, the wording of the question (“Which comes closer to your view?”) is vague enough that only one response links confrontation to anti-terrorism goals: “In the long run, the United States will be safer from terrorism if it confronts the countries and groups that promote terrorism.” Respondents who preferred the non-intervention option merely supported the view that, “In the long run, the United States will be safer from terrorism if it stays out of other countries’ affairs.” (For the full report, see here.)
Certainly, the terrorist connections of the Al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front, one of the most powerful of the Syrian rebel factions and the likely benefactor of further U.S. involvement in the country’s civil war, must be a cause for concern.
Yet the fact that extremists with ties to Al Qaeda, who represent the Syrian opposition’s “best fighters” by the admission of Secretary of State John Kerry, would stand to gain enormously from intervention in Syria is not so much a bizarre conundrum as it is emblematic of the U.S. government’s schizophrenic foreign policy in the post–9/11 world. Since the outset of the Egyptian uprisings in 2011, the Obama administration has alternately: 1. Endorsed the embattled President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally; 2. Urged for Mubarak’s removal; 3. Supported democratic elections in Egypt which swept in a Muslim Brotherhood government; and 4. Refused to repudiate the military overthrow of the country’s democratically elected government.
All this was followed up by refusal to label said overthrow as a coup d’etat in a move that represented simultaneously an Orwellian assault on the English language and flagrant disregard for U.S. law, which requires cutting off military aid to any government installed in a country following a coup. Sound confusing? The administration’s Egyptian shenanigans have closely mirrored its approach to the Libyan crisis, where President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the executive foreign policy elite defied Congress in a unilateral military operation to oust Muammar Gaddafi, another repressive dictator who had enjoyed years of official support from the U.S. government, in spite of evidence linking him to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Foreign policy in the administrations of Bush and Obama has been rife with such contradictions: The U.S. government supports a brutal dictator to keep the terrorists at bay in one country while backing terrorist-affiliated opposition groups to effect regime change in another. Yesterday’s ally is today’s enemy. (Surely no one has forgotten Saddam Hussein or bin Laden’s Mujahideen in Afghanistan?)
Perhaps Americans are finally growing wise to the disastrous consequences of a policy of unbridled intervention that neither protects U.S. interests nor enhances U.S. security. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the principal motivation for plotting the Boston bombing, becoming the latest in a long series of radicals motivated by the U.S. government’s meddling in the Middle East. The Times Square bomber perhaps expressed this sentiment most clearly in his statement before the Federal District Court in Manhattan in June 2010: "Until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan, and stops the occupation of Muslim lands, and stops killing the Muslims, and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking U.S."
While the Washington elites continue to push war with Syria in a seemingly oblivious drive to provide Al Qaeda with a recruiting tool to rival Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, perhaps these polling numbers indicate that Americans are waking up to the dangers of continual wars of choice in the Middle East.
May we all fervently hope this trend shall continue.