(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are
By John Kemp
LONDON, Sept 9 Syria has revealed a deep rift
between international relations experts and ordinary voters in
Britain, France and the United States over intervening in the
country following the apparent use of chemical weapons.
In 2008, the financial crisis revealed that the "masters of
the universe" who ran the banks were not actually all that good
at controlling risk - leading to a sharp reduction in their
status and influence with politicians and the public.
Now, a decade of policy failures in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan
and elsewhere has sapped public confidence in the ability of the
British, French and American experts who control and advise on
foreign policy, and with it their ability to convince the public
of the necessity for military intervention.
Research by polling firm YouGov shows clear majorities of
Americans in favour of military interventions during the 1980s
and 1990s including Grenada, Libya, Panama, Kuwait/Iraq,
Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans, and even the start of the
But the public is now opposed to intervention in Syria and
remains strongly opposed to intervention in Iraq, even a decade
later, and is also against the recent intervention in Libya.
The principal difference is that the earlier campaigns are
seen, in retrospect, as broadly successful, while more recent
interventions in Iraq, Libya and to some extent Afghanistan are
seen as failures or at best mixed successes.
The past decade has not seen many unambiguous successes for
British and American foreign policy. Ten years after the
overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is a barely functioning state,
deeply divided between Kurdish, Sunni and Shia communities, with
a renewed escalation of bombings, pipeline sabotage and other
Libya appears to be on the verge of splitting apart. In both
Iran and North Korea, the Western Powers have struggled to bend
hostile governments to their will. Recent turmoil in Egypt has
exposed the limits on their ability to predict or influence the
course of events.
In foreign policy, as in other areas of policymaking,
successful interventions foster support for more, while failures
sap confidence and lead to questions about the competence of
those in charge. After a decade of failure, voters are not
inclined to put much faith in the experts and politicians
responsible for making policy on their behalf.
PUBLIC OPPOSITION HARDENING
From the start of the conflict in Syria, the foreign policy
community in Washington, London and Paris had been divided over
whether to intervene in the country's civil war to help the
But following the apparent employment of chemical munitions
in August, most experts have concluded there is no alternative
but to launch at least limited air strikes to maintain the taboo
on using chemical weapons and to uphold the credibility of the
United States, which had declared the use of chemical weapons a
By contrast, a raft of polling data shows ordinary voters
strongly oppose military action, even if it is shown the Syrian
government was responsible for using chemical munitions, and
despite warnings from experts and political leaders about the
consequences of doing nothing.
"I've had more phone calls on this issue than any issue
I've ever had since I got here in 2001, and my phone calls,
emails, faxes are running 96 percent no," U.S. Congressman John
Culberson, a Republican from conservative Texas, told the
In Britain, the strength of public feeling emboldened
lawmakers, including some in the ruling Conservative and Liberal
Democrat coalition, to reject a parliamentary motion authorising
a "strong humanitarian response" that "may, if necessary,
require military action."
Polling shows public opposition to military intervention
hardening, not softening, after the vote, despite warnings that
Britain's decision to stand aside risked harming the country's
leading role in international affairs and its strategic
relationship with the United States.
Opposition to British involvement has risen from 50 percent
in late August to 69 percent by Sept. 4, according to surveys
conducted by polling firm YouGov.
In the United States, the most recent opinion poll for the
Washington Post put opposition even to limited air strikes at 60
percent, with just 36 percent supporting them. Half of the
respondents were still opposed to missile strikes even if U.S.
That is now compelling many legislators in the U.S. Congress
to defy the administration's push for authorisation to use
There was "absolutely no question" that Syria's President
Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, Congressman Culberson
told the Post. Even so, "America has absolutely no strategic
interest involved and we should stay out of it."
In France, which alone has pledged to support military
action, 68 percent of respondents in a poll published on
Saturday opposed the country's involvement, up from 59 percent
at the end of August.
Some commentators blame U.S. President Barack Obama and
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron of failing to make the
case for intervention and offer effective leadership to overcome
Cameron has been faulted for poor preparation ahead of the
parliamentary vote while Obama is criticised for not marshalling
the president's power to persuade. Even President Franklin
Roosevelt, however, was unable to persuade Congress to authorise
U.S. entry into World War Two until after the attack on Pearl
"People are war-weary and less inclined to give the
president or Congress the benefit of the doubt," one Democratic
politician told the Washington Post in a recent interview. "A
complicating factor is that the president has limited political
capital to draw on, and that won't change until the economy
shows greater momentum."
Others point to the intelligence failures in the run up to
the Iraq war, including the publication of Britain's "dodgy
dossier" and former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell's
presentation to the United Nations, alleging that Iraq possessed
chemical weapons, nearly all of which subsequently turned out to
be based on fabricated evidence from a low-level defector aptly
"The well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by
the Iraq episode and we need to understand the public
scepticism," Cameron told the House of Commons.
EXPERTS FOUND WANTING
In reality, public scepticism is not confined to the quality
of the intelligence. Polls show the majority of U.S. and British
voters still oppose military intervention even if it can be
proved that chemical munitions were used by the Syrian
government against its own people.
In the U.S. Pew poll, conducted in late August and early
September, more than half of respondents already thought there
was "clear evidence" the Syrian government used chemical weapons
(53 percent). So scepticism about the intelligence is not at the
root of public opposition.
By large majorities they thought even limited missile
strikes would create a backlash against the U.S. and its allies
in the region (74 percent), lead to a long-term U.S. military
commitment (61 percent) and would not be effective in
discouraging the use of chemical weapons in future (51 percent).
In other words, voters do not believe the experts when they
say that military strikes are necessary, can be carefully
limited and will be effective in punishing and deterring the
employment of weapons of chemical ordnance.
The real significance of the Iraq war, as well as campaigns
in Libya and Afghanistan, is that voters do not think they were
successful, and have become sceptical about the community of
foreign policy experts who supported them.
(Editing by Susan Fenton)