As President Obama prepares to address the nation on Syria tonight, polls show most Americans understand the moral dilemmas. Yesterday’s news offers some hope that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad understands them as well. (More)

“A moral obligation to stop the violence”

Yesterday’s Pew Research poll found rising resistance to a punitive military strike in Syria, but also found Americans are grappling with the moral dilemmas:

Over just the past week, the share of Americans who oppose U.S. airstrikes in Syria has surged 15 points, from 48% to 63%, as many who were undecided about the issue have turned against military action. By contrast, the share of Americans who support airstrikes remains virtually unchanged: Just 28% favor U.S. military airstrikes against Syria in response to reports that its government used chemical weapons.
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The public thinks that the United States must do something to register its disapproval of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Six-in-ten agree that the U.S. must act to show that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. However, even among those who express this view just 42% favor U.S. airstrikes against Syria while 51% are opposed.

A narrow majority of the public (54%) says the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop the violence against civilians. But an even higher percentage (75%) says that U.S. airstrikes in Syria are likely to make things in the Middle East worse. And just 39% say the U.S. will lose credibility around the world if it does not act in Syria.

This does not fit the Beltway meme of an increasingly isolationist nation “haunted by the ghost of the Iraq War.” Instead, it suggests a nuanced and realistic moral calculus. A CNN/ORC poll found 80% of Americans believe the Assad regime gassed civilians and the Pew Research poll found most of us recognize a moral imperative to stop such atrocities. But we also fear that a U.S. strike would make the situation worse rather than better.

In the language of just war theory, Americans recognize the “lasting, grave, and certain” damage of allowing the use of chemical weapons, but doubt a U.S. strike offers “serious prospects of success” and fear it would “produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

“Most people understand this is simply not our problem”

The moral sophistication of ordinary Americans, revealed in the polling data, stands in stark contrast to many of our elected officials. Consider Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), who shrugged aside any moral duty to prevent further atrocities in Syria:

Chris Hayes asked Grayson if there was anything in the interview with Secretary Kerry “that you find compelling or convincing?”

“Not at all,” Grayson replied, with a thin smirk. “Listen, most people understand this is simply not our problem. This is not our problem to solve.”

Indeed Rep. Grayson sounded disturbingly like Sarah Palin:

As I said before, if we are dangerously uncertain of the outcome and are led into war by a Commander-in-chief who can’t recognize that this conflict is pitting Islamic extremists against an authoritarian regime with both sides shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ at each other, then let Allah sort it out.

Add in ugly conspiracy theories ranging from Syria’s chemical weapons being the ‘missing’ WMDs in Iraq to President Obama and/or Israel arranging a “false flag attack” and it’s clear that the American people are wiser than many who claim to speak for them.

“Ancient sectarian differences”

Even President Obama repeated a common Western meme about the Middle East:

And finally, let me say this to the American people: I know well that we are weary of war. We’ve ended one war in Iraq. We’re ending another in Afghanistan. And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military. In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve. And that’s why we’re not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else’s war.

Yes, Syria’s many religious sects have ancient roots, but those differences do not guarantee perpetual conflict:

But do complexity, and long memories, lead inexorably to conflict? In most regions where different religions and ethnicities live, there are memories not only of bloodshed but also of mutually beneficial co-existence, often made possible by an authoritarian regime (be it Tsarist, Ottoman, Leninist, Titoist or Ba’athist) which keeps the peace by repressing any move to assert the interests of one group at the expense of others. The ruling authority doesn’t have to be dictatorial; the international protectorate over Bosnia was a more or less benign case of imposing inter-communal peace. The greatest danger of carnage arises when a brittle authoritarian regime crumbles, as it inevitably does; that’s why authoritarianism is no long-term solution.

As historian David Fromkin detailed in his critically acclaimed A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, much of the today’s violence in the Middle East owes far more to European meddling in the 19th and 20th centuries than to some irreducibly violent “tribalism.”

“The president is unlikely to change many opinions”

As we discussed last month, data show presidential speeches rarely sway public opinion, and Dr. George Edwards repeated that warning in a POLITICO column yesterday:

Let’s get one thing clear: President Barack Obama’s upcoming media blitz, to include interviews on six television networks and a primetime Oval Office address, is not going to rally the public behind U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria.

Dr. Edwards reviews the reasons he detailed in The Strategic Presidency, and concludes:

Nevertheless, the president is unlikely to change many opinions. Those least likely to change are Republicans, the core constituency of the House majority. Although one wing of the GOP favors a more aggressive foreign policy, few Republican voters trust the president. And even those inclined to hear his argument will note the relative lack of international support for U.S. action. Meanwhile, a range of partisan leaders they do trust is signaling that opposing a strike is the wiser course.

The president might have better luck with his fellow Democrats. Many will remain opposed to attacking Syria because of their deep opposition to violence in international relations. A few others, and it will be at most a few, may be moved by their general predisposition to support their party’s leader. This calculation explains why administration officials have fanned out to liberal outfits such as MSNBC and the Center for American Progress in recent days.

But barring dramatic events in Syria itself, the world will not change on Tuesday. Partisan politics will not stop at the water’s edge, and the president is unlikely to substantially increase public support for military action against Syria. It’s not because, as you’ll hear often in the days ahead, he’s a pale shadow of great presidents of yore; it’s just the way American politics really works.

“This is what we’ve been asking for”

But President Obama may already have swayed the mind of the one person most central to resolving the crisis, Syrian President Assad himself:

Russia and Syria embraced Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s suggestion Monday that the Syrian government could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control, upending the Obama administration’s efforts to sharpen its case for military action.

U.S. officials said Kerry’s comment, made in response to a question at a news conference in London, was not intended to be a diplomatic opening. But Kerry’s Russian and Syrian counterparts quickly followed up, and the idea drew immediate interest internationally and from top Democrats in Washington.

By the end of the day, President Obama conceded that the idea of monitoring and ultimately destroying Syria’s arsenal “could potentially be a significant breakthrough.” The Senate postponed a vote scheduled for Wednesday on whether to back a proposed punitive strike.

President Obama went further in interviews last night:

“It’s possible if it’s real,” Obama told CNN in an interview that aired Monday of the possible breakthrough on the Syria crisis. “And, you know, I think it’s certainly a positive development when, the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures toward dealing with these chemical weapons. This is what we’ve been asking for not just over the last week or the last month, but for the last couple of years.”

“If we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable, enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria, then I’m all for it,” Obama added in an interview with PBS NewsHour.

“But we’re going to have to see specifics,” Obama said. “And I think it is reasonable to assume that we would not be at this point if there were not a credible military threat standing behind the norm against the use of chemical weapons.”

If Presidents Obama, Putin, and Assad can negotiate such a deal, both Americans and Syrians would be very relieved. The chemical weapons agreement likely would not end Syria’s civil war, but it could lay a foundation of trust that would help to foster peace negotiations.

Despite the ugly distractions of partisans and pundits, Americans recognize that the atrocities in Syria demand a moral response. As President Obama speaks tonight, we should listen carefully and weigh the difficult dilemmas … and the new hope of a peaceful end to the bloodshed.

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Happy Tuesday!