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
Syrian Kurds wait behind border fences to cross into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc on Sunday, September 28. As many as 200,000 people have left the area surrounding the Syrian city of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, as ISIS advances, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said September 22. Syrian Kurds wait behind border fences to cross into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc on Sunday, September 28. As many as 200,000 people have left the area surrounding the Syrian city of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, as ISIS advances, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said September 22.
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
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
87
88
89
90
>
>>
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 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT