Foreign Relations & International Law

Polling Data on the U.S. Airstrikes in Syria

Elizabeth McElvein
Thursday, April 20, 2017, 9:31 AM

Elsewhere on Lawfare, scholars have argued that U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian regime are difficult to defend as consistent with international law. John Bellinger writes that “under the U.N. Charter, the U.S.

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Elsewhere on Lawfare, scholars have argued that U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian regime are difficult to defend as consistent with international law. John Bellinger writes that “under the U.N. Charter, the U.S. is prohibited from using force in Syria unless authorized by the Security Council or exercising its right to individual or collective self-defense.” China and Russia have continued to block authorization of collective intervention in Syria, Bellinger writes, and claims to individual self-defense are tenuous, as the U.S. government has never recognized a right of humanitarian intervention under international law.

Thus far, the Administration has provided only a domestic—rather than an international—legal basis for the use of force in Syria. According to the War Powers report, delivered to the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate on April 8, the airstrikes were carried out to “degrade the Syrian military's ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks" and "to dissuade the Syrian regime from using or proliferating chemical weapons, thereby promoting the stability of the region and averting a worsening of the region's current humanitarian catastrophe.” According to the Administration, these objectives qualify as vital national security and foreign policy interests, and thereby authorize the President to act in his capacity as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive—a view that seems to accord with various Obama-era executive branch opinions justifying unilateral presidential military force.

President Trump’s War Power report also intimates additional attacks, pledging to “take additional action, as necessary and appropriate, to further its important national interests.” If he indeed orders these attacks, it would be—in the words of John Bellinger—“prudent” for him to seek congressional authorization. Congress returns to Washington from a two-week recess next week, at which point debate over whether and how Congress is to oversee President Trump’s military actions undoubtedly will resume. Just last week, CNN reported that Reps. McGovern (D-MA) and Cole (R-OK) have circulated a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan calling for the House to debate a war authorization when Congress returns to Washington from its two-week recess. To the extent that domestic political considerations may constrain or embolden the Trump Administration's foreign policy, it is worth considering recent polling data on the Administration’s airstrikes.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll fielded immediately after the attack, a narrow majority (51 percent) of Americans support President Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons in the northern Idib province. Broken down by partisan affiliation, that’s 37 percent of Democrats and a whopping 86 percent of Republicans who support the strikes. More recently Pew reported a wider margin of support for the airstrikes—58 percent overall approval, breaking down to 44 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans. Americans’ support for the airstrikes is roughly on par with the level of public support for U.S. involvement in airstrikes against Serbian military targets in Yugoslavia, which, according to Gallup, stood at 50 percent when the strikes began in March of 1999.

Although this hardly constitutes a broad base of public support, it represents a sea change in public support for military action since 2013, when Assad used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 people outside of Damascus. At that time, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, just 30 percent of Americans said they would support strikes against the Syrian regime—38 percent of Democrats and a mere 22 percent of Republicans. The same poll found that less than half (45 percent) of those polled reported America’s “vital interests” to be at stake in Syria—breaking down to roughly equal shares of Democrats (47 percent) and Republicans (45 percent).

A number of different factors—a priori partisan commitments and deteriorating geopolitical conditions, for instance—could account for the shift in public support for airstrikes. As Scott Clement observed in a recent article for the Washington Post, public opinion in the wake of major national security operation is notoriously difficult to analyze. Nevertheless, support for the air strikes among a strong majority of self-identified Republicans is a boon for the Trump Administration, which has experienced no shortage of political hits in recent weeks.

Although support for the airstrikes is reasonably strong, 69 percent of Americans (80 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans) report that they lack confidence that the U.S. airstrikes will end the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, just 35 percent of Americans (19 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans) say they would support additional airstrikes, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll. This suggests a significant limitation on the extent to which intervention—congressionally authorized, or otherwise—will remain politically viable.

Elizabeth McElvein is a third-year law student at the University of Michigan. Prior to law school, she was an oversight and investigations staffer at the House Judiciary Committee and a research assistant at the Brookings Institution.

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