Skip to main content

Obama, ignore the polls on Syria

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Wed September 4, 2013
A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations. A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations.
HIDE CAPTION
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Photos: Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Photos: Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Polls say Americans averse to Syria strike and welcome hearings
  • He says basing foreign policy on polls dangerous for a leader who must protect U.S. interests
  • He says citizens often don't see implications of inaction
  • Rothkopf: Obama has authority and cause to act whether there is broad support for him or not

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Most Americans don't want the United States to launch military strikes against the Syrian government. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll says 59% of the American people oppose such an intervention, while 36% support it. Even more oppose supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels, with 70% against and 27% in favor.

Many have welcomed President Barack Obama's move to bring the decision before Congress as giving the issue the kind of national debate it deserves. And hearings this week may move the needle of public opinion to give the president more confidence that he has the backing of U.S. voters.

But even if that doesn't happen, the president needs to move ahead with the plan to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons in an attack outside Damascus -- to degrade its ability to use such weapons of mass destruction in the future and to force its removal and replacement by opposition forces that we support. Such action does not have to involve U.S. boots on the ground. It should not involve putting U.S. lives at risk. But what it will require is a kind of leadership, clarity and commitment that has been sorely lacking from our Syria policy to date.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

While leadership often entails persuading others to follow before taking action, sometimes it requires taking action even when it is unpopular because it is the right thing to do.

Opinion: Congress, support Obama on Syria

In fact, setting foreign policy by opinion poll is among the most dangerous traps for a political leader. By nature voters are disinclined to take risks and to intervene in distant conflicts. Given the outcome of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, you can hardly blame them.

In addition, citizens, even earnest ones, are often reluctant -- and sometimes ill-equipped -- to weigh seriously how the outcome of such conflicts might affect America's long-term national security interests. That is not a slam on those citizens. Often the issues involved are arcane, convoluted and mind-bending, even to so-called experts.

Senator updates on progress of Syria vote
Zakaria analyzes situation in Syria
Tragic milestone in Syria refugee crisis

Presidents need to take these things into consideration when evaluating just how much weight to give to public opinion. Furthermore, whereas presidents are elected by the people, they are sworn to do what they can not only to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution but also to execute the duties of their office.

This means serving as commander in chief of the armed forces, guiding U.S. foreign policy and working with the tools given to them by elected representatives, such as the War Powers Act of 1973, which grants them the authority to take military action without consulting with Congress if they deem it essential. (They have to consult Congress within 60 days. Although it is worth noting that presidents often undertake such action not by drawing on the power granted them under the act but by that conferred to them under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. That's the section giving them the responsibility for being commander in chief.)

The critical issue is whether the national interests of the United States are at risk and must be protected. In the case of Syria, it is clear that the president must act.

Opinion: Obama's irony, McCain's agony

The administration has said al-Assad has used chemical weapons. This is an abuse of international law and norms that cannot be allowed to stand, or it will send a message to other bad actors -- some of whom represent a direct threat to U.S. soldiers, private citizens and allies, as is the case in the Koreas, to choose one example. (Iran's WMD threat to allies such as Israel, U.S. friends in the Gulf and U.S. military forces in the region is yet another.) Further, if the United States does not act after the president had rightly declared such action would be unacceptable, it would undermine deeply and perhaps irreparably our credibility in the Middle East and worldwide.

Just as important, the Assad regime is an ally of Iran's, seeking to advance Iranian power throughout the region and doing so with direct Iranian aid and weapons support. This is a threat to our allies, to regional stability and, by extension, to the global economy and vital energy supplies.

Further, the deterioration in Syria has made the country a breeding ground for a new generation of extremists who might be empowered by an al-Assad defeat. We must be careful to place our support behind others, such as the Free Syrian Army, who are most likely to be sympathetic to our views. But we almost recognize that not stabilizing the Syrian crisis, simply ignoring it, will make the situation throughout the region much more dangerous.

We must send a clear message chemical weapons use is unacceptable. And we must actively support the opposition with weapons so that they can defeat al-Assad. Even if the regime that replaces him is hostile to us, it is unlikely to pose the kind of regional threat that one supported by Iran does. Risks are involved. Outcomes may not be exactly what we seek. Action may be dangerous and unpopular, but inaction is certain to make the situation worse and the threats to our interests grow.

Opinion: GOP shouldn't bail out Obama's floundering foreign policy

The president deserves credit for trying to make this case to the American people. But it is time for him to act whether there is broad support for him or not.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT