(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By John Kemp
LONDON, Sept 9 (Reuters) - 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 Afghanistan conflict.
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 violence.
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.
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 opposition.
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 “red line”.
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 Washington Post.
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. allies participated.
That is now compelling many legislators in the U.S. Congress to defy the administration’s push for authorisation to use military force.
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 public scepticism.
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 Harbour.
“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 codenamed Curveball.
“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.
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)