Skip to main content

Obama, ignore the polls on Syria

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
Syrian refugees board a boat bound for Turkey at a port in Kyrenia, Cyprus, on Sunday, November 23. Some 220 Syrian migrants crammed onto a fishing boat were rescued by a cruise ship off Cyprus' northern coast after their vessel hit rough seas in the Mediterranean Sea, authorities said. Syrian refugees board a boat bound for Turkey at a port in Kyrenia, Cyprus, on Sunday, November 23. Some 220 Syrian migrants crammed onto a fishing boat were rescued by a cruise ship off Cyprus' northern coast after their vessel hit rough seas in the Mediterranean Sea, authorities said.
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
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
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
>
>>
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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT