Americans are far more worried that military strikes against Syria will drag the nation further into that country's civil war than the possibility that staying away will embolden despots in other nations to deploy weapons of mass destruction.
That's the finding of the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, which also found that fewer than two in five Americans believe the United States has an obligation to punish foreign governments that deploy weapons of mass destruction to kill civilians.
Taken together, the results show a nation wary of further entanglements 12 years removed from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after the prolonged military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The survey also shows that Republicans, long the nation's more hawkish party, are now among those most skittish of further interventions abroad.
That can be partly explained away by the fact that President Obama, a Democrat, is leading the current call for strikes against Syria. But it is also evidence that the libertarian, noninterventionist wing within the GOP is growing at the grassroots level. It is tension likely to play out in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
The poll, which was conducted before Obama's national address Tuesday and his blitz of network interviews Monday, found that a 50 percent majority said they are more concerned about being "drawn more deeply" into war in Syria. Only 32 percent said they are more concerned that not taking military action would embolden other nations to use mass-destruction weapons.
Americans across all age groups, regions, incomes, and levels of schooling are more fearful of being further entangled in the Syrian conflict. Exactly 50 percent of college graduates, college dropouts, and those with a high school education or less all said that it was riskier to be drawn deeper into Syria.
The only group that split on the question was Democrats, who were evenly divided, 43 percent to 43 percent, over which option posed the greater risk. Independents, by a 52 percent to 29 percent margin, said striking Syria was riskier. So did Republicans, by a 54 percent to 32 percent margin.
In a sign of how inward-looking the current Republican Party has become, a slim majority of self-identified Republicans, 51 percent, said the United States does not have an obligation to punish other countries that use "chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction to kill civilians." Only 37 percent of Republicans said the country has such an obligation. That constitutes a shift for a party that a decade ago, under Republican President George W. Bush, led the nation to war in Iraq over the possibility that Saddam Hussein had such weapons, not that he was actively using them. (It turned out he did not have the weapons).
Times have changed. As Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., said following a classified briefing Monday evening on Syria, "America can no longer afford to be the world's policeman."
In the poll, independents agreed with the GOP's current limited views of America's role abroad, with 51 percent also saying the United States need not punish governments that deploy such weapons. But a slim plurality of Democrats, 45 percent to 44 percent, disagreed and said the United States has such an obligation. Some of that party difference is likely attributable to Obama leading the current campaign for strikes.
Other than party lines, the poll showed remarkable consistence across a multitude of demographics. For instance, only 35 percent of college-educated white women said that America had no obligation to punish those who use weapons of mass destruction. That is similar to the 38 percent of white men without college degrees who felt that way.
Rural Americans were the least likely to support punishing foreign governments (34 percent), but those who live in suburbs (38 percent) and cities (40 percent) were only slightly more likely to say U.S. intervention was an obligation.
The latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. The group surveyed 1,002 adults by landline and cell phone from Sept. 5-8. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
This article appears in the September 11, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.