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Poll: Obama faces skeptical public on Syria

By Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto and Fred Backus

As President Obama heads to Capitol Hill and readies to address the nation from the White House Tuesday in his effort to convince Congress and the American people to support an attack on Syria, a CBS News/New York Times poll shows a majority of Americans opposes military strikes.

Six in 10 Americans oppose military air strikes against Syria, and a majority - 56 percent - disapproves of how Mr. Obama is handling the matter. Opposition is stronger among Republicans and independents than it is among Democrats. 

 

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While six in 10 are against airstrikes, even more (74 percent) are opposed to the U.S. providing arms to anti-government forces in Syria, and 86 percent oppose sending U.S. ground troops into Syria, something the administration has not proposed.

Concerns and Repercussions

Opposition may stem in part from the real concerns Americans have about possible repercussions from U.S. military action in Syria. About two in three (66 percent) are very concerned that such action will become a long and costly involvement for the U.S.; that it will lead to a more widespread war in neighboring countries and other parts of the Middle East, and that it will kill or harm innocent civilians.

Most Americans (60 percent) are also concerned that military involvement in Syria will make the possibility of a terrorist attack against the United States more likely. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents share this view.

More generally, most Americans (65 percent) continue to say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria. Views have been consistent on this since late last year.

Chemical Weapons and Airstrikes

Three in four Americans believe the Syrian government probably used chemical weapons against civilians. There is agreement across party lines on this.

If the U.S. does launch airstrikes against Syria, few think ousting that country's president should be the goal. Most Americans (63 percent) think airstrikes should be conducted only to stop the Syrian government from using chemical weapons. Just a quarter think airstrikes should continue until President Bashar Assad is removed from power.

While 58 percent think airstrikes would be at least somewhat effective in stopping further use of chemical weapons, just 21 percent see them as very effective. Democrats express more confidence in the effectiveness of U.S. airstrikes than Republicans do.

Fifty-two percent of Americans perceive the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a security threat to the United States, while 45 percent do not.

Those who are following news about Syria more closely are more skeptical: most who say they have heard or read a lot about reports of chemical weapon use by the Syrian government do not think that poses a threat to U.S. security.

While Americans agree that the situation in Syria is at least somewhat important to the interests of the U.S., only a third consider it very important. Views were similar regarding American interests in both Libya and Kosovo right before the U.S. engaged in airstrikes against those two regions in 2011 and 1999.

 

The President and Congress

Mr. Obama receives low marks for his handling of the Syria issue: just 33 percent approve and a majority disapproves.

 

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By a large margin, most Americans say the Obama administration has not clearly explained what U.S. goals are in Syria. While Democrats are more likely than Republicans or independents to say he has done so, most of them say he has not.

 

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Thirty-one percent of Americans think the Administration is showing too much support for anti-government forces in Syria. Forty-one percent think the support is about the right amount; 13 percent think it is too little.

President Obama may be facing an uphill battle in convincing Congress as well. More than two in three Americans (69 percent) say that if Congress does not authorize military strikes against the Syrian government, President Obama should not proceed with them. Just 25 percent think that he should go ahead with airstrikes if he thinks that is the right thing to do. Two in three Democrats, and even more Republicans, think the president should not proceed without the support of Congress.

How members of Congress vote on authorizing military action in Syria will play a role in Americans' evaluations of their own representative. Forty-two percent say that will matter a lot, and another 34 percent say it will matter somewhat.

President Obama's overall job approval rating is 46 percent, with as many disapproving. In July, 48 percent approved.

Forty-six percent also approve of his handling of the economy, similar to July. But his approval rating on handling terrorism has dropped since then, from 56 percent to 49 percent now.

While far more disapprove than approve of the job Congress is doing, at 24 percent congressional approval is the highest it has been since February 2011.

Intervention vs. Isolationism and the International Community

Most Americans do not support unilateral action without regard to what the international community thinks. Seventy-six percent of Americans think the U.S. should take the views of its allies into consideration before it takes action, and 72 percent think the U.S. should similarly consider the views of the United Nations.

As was the case in June, Americans generally do not support a lead role for the U.S. in solving international conflicts. Thirty-four percent of Republicans, and 41 percent of Democrats, think the U.S. should take the lead role.

The poll points to another measure in which Americans oppose intervention overseas: by a large margin, Americans think the U.S. should not try to change a dictatorship to a democracy. Seventy-two percent think the U.S. should stay out of other countries' affairs.

Since the question was first asked in this poll in 1986, support for regime change has not surpassed 29 percent, and in recent years it has been stable at 15 percent.

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This poll was conducted by telephone from September 6-8, 2013 among 1,011 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News/The New York Times by Social Science Research Solutions of Media, Pa. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

 
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