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Polls: Few Americans Believe Strike Would Dissuade Future Chemical Warfare

September 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Two new polls show that most Americans do not support the idea of a limited military strike by the U.S. government against Syria for conducting a chemical weapons attack on civilians. Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center and Jennifer Agiesta of the Associated Press join Gwen Ifill to look closely at public opinion.
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GWEN IFILL: As the president and I were discussing at the White House not too long ago, new polls out today show that the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to military action.

For more on the numbers and what is behind them, I’m joined byJennifer Agiesta, director of polling for the Associated Press, and Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center.

Welcome to you both.

How to explain America’s deep antipathy, looking at these numbers, for the potential for intervention, Michael?

MICHAEL DIMOCK, Pew Research Center: Yes.

Well, and it’s growing concern. The opposition last week was lower than it was this week. So, despite a week of making the case, the public is moving the other direction. And it seems that the biggest factor behind it is not that the arguments for aren’t necessarily persuasive, but that the arguments against are really weighing heavily on people.

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And that is the concern that a U.S. military effort in Af — in Syria — excuse me — could lead to unforeseen results that are bad for United States, whether it’s our allies in the region, whether it’s militarily. There’s a concern that this could do more harm than good, and that case, I don’t think, has been made to people yet.

GWEN IFILL: Jennifer, tell me what your numbers show in your poll that is out this afternoon.

JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press: We’re finding actually that the arguments that have been made in favor of going to — of taking military action in Syria are really not convincing the American public.

Only one in five say that they believe it’s extreme likely that an attack would deter other world leaders from using chemical weapons. And many say that they think any involvement would lead to a long-term commitment of military forces. And those opinions are generally consistent across party lines, which is somewhat surprising an on issue such as this.

GWEN IFILL: Did your numbers add up with that, Michael?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: To some extent.

People — six in 10 people in our survey said they believe the U.S. needs to take some kind of action in response to the use of chemical weapons, but among those people, fewer than half favor airstrikes in Syria. They would like to see a different action.

Some response sits in their mind as important, but it’s not this one.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a moral distinction that people draw in your answer to what should move the U.S. to action?

JENNIFER AGIESTA: We haven’t really seen necessarily a moral distinction in our poll.

It’s more a resistance to getting involved in another military conflict and having that turn into a longer-term commitment.

GWEN IFILL: How about the idea of chemical weapons being this red line, this tipping point? Are people persuaded by this argument?

JENNIFER AGIESTA: They seem not to be.

As I said, very few believe that a military strike will dissuade other leaders from using them in the future. And so that argument against it, that argument for why that is a red line, is not breaking through to the American public.

GWEN IFILL: Michael?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: And one argument that has not settled in at all that we tested was this case that doing nothing would challenge America’s credibility in foreign policy. That’s not an argument that is really persuading a lot of Americans.

GWEN IFILL: What does this do for the president’s standing? You heard what the president said about this. He doesn’t expect to win over everyone on this matter, but he clearly is being tested on it.

JENNIFER AGIESTA: His disapproval for handling the situation in Syria has actually risen, according to our poll.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: Over what period of time?

JENNIFER AGIESTA: In June 2012, 43 percent said they disapproved of his handling of Syria. And that has risen to now a majority say they disapprove of the way he is handling it.

He does still have the support of Democrats in his handling of the situation, but it has completely fallen off among Republicans and independents.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Have you…

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL DIMOCK: I agree. We’re seeing a very similar thing.

His overall approval has moved back into negative territory for the first time in our polling in over a year-and-a-half. And it’s undoubtedly related to concerns or reservations about this policy. But he does still have pretty good support within his base.

Even though a majority of Democrats are against taking military action in Syria, his support among Democrats seems to be strong right now, and also among other key groups like African-Americans, minorities.

GWEN IFILL: The president, I asked him whether he would do this again, go to Congress to have them debate it. He said, absolutely.

Is this something that Americans support, the idea that basically handed over his executive power in this matter, that he says is his executive power, to Congress?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Yes. I think most polls suggest that the idea of bringing it to Congress is very popular. There’s kind of a why-not factor in the public’s mind, and getting more people involved isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least at first.

Now, how long it drags out could have some effect on that attitude, I think. And we found that, by 2-1, people are of the view right now that whatever Congress says should be decisive here. If Congress says no, they get to make the final call. That’s sort of the leaning opinion right now for the public.

GWEN IFILL: Jennifer, you’re hearing that, too, that even if Congress were to vote against the president, the idea that he might overrule them at this point is not an option?

JENNIFER AGIESTA: Yes, I believe that that is the case in the polling.

And our question, we asked whether people preferred for Congress to vote for or against the resolution to use force, and found that six in 10 said they believe that Congress should vote against it.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that — is there a connection between that and then what we were hearing? Because, sometimes, it seems like it’s anecdotal or that it’s an organized opposition. But what you’re saying in the numbers and your polling and your surveys is that this goes deeper than just the organized opposition?

JENNIFER AGIESTA: Yes, I believe it does. It crosses party lines. It crosses most of the demographic lines that usually divide the public on most political issues. It’s a pretty consistent opinion across the board.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Yes. And the strength of opinion runs very much against getting involved in Syria militarily by about 3-1; 45 percent of the people we interviewed over the weekend strongly oppose this action. Only 16 percent strongly favor it.

So, that’s how you can get that tilt in the e-mails and letters and phone calls members are getting.

GWEN IFILL: And the president speaks tomorrow night. Are people listening for that? Can they still be persuaded? Do they seem persuadable?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Well, a week ago, a quarter of the people we interviewed said they were not sure what we should so. That shrunk to 9 percent in the current poll. So a case could be made this is a conversation, the direct conversation, he probably should have had a little earlier.

But most of the people we talk to, whether they favor or oppose it right now, do seem ambivalent about it. Supporters of it do worry about the risks that it could have for future security. Opponents of it, many of them do understand the need to respond to the kind of red line argument, so there is some ambivalence he could work with.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Jen Agiesta and Michael Dimock, thank you both so much.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Thank you.

JENNIFER AGIESTA: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And amid the opposition among the public and in Congress, there was word this evening that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has delayed a test vote on authorizing military force. He said it wouldn’t help to vote on military action while diplomatic efforts continue.