Could Obama benefit politically by intervening in Syria?

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Could President Barack Obama benefit politically by attempting to refocus the general election debate on foreign policy by intervening in Syria? Depends on whom you ask.

Since Syrians began staging protests against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in March 2011, the regime has killed over 9,000 of its own citizens and injured many more, according to the United Nations. With the death toll continuing to rise, the Obama administration faces domestic and international pressure to do more to stop the violence. After a recent massacre that killed over 100 Syrians, including many children, Arizona Sen. John McCain said the Obama administration’s failure to act has been “embarrassing.”

While it seems crass to consider that politics would intrude upon such a weighty decision, George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser, Elliott Abrams, said it is always factor in the White House, albeit to varying degrees depending on the president.

“Politics plays a role in every White House, but this one is far more political than most,” he told The Daily Caller.

Some political analysts see a benefit for Obama in shifting the election from economic issues to foreign policy.

“Anything that distracts [presumptive Republican nominee Mitt] Romney from his focus on jobs and the economy — particularly if it is an issue area where the president has an automatic advantage, such as foreign policy — is helpful for President Obama’s re-election campaign,” Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report told TheDC.

American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Karlyn Bowman was more equivocal, but suggested she too could imagine Obama benefiting from such a move.

“It is always hard to answer a hypothetical question, especially one that concerns foreign policy,” she told TheDC. “That said, foreign policy is an Obama strength.”

But, she added, “how it goes would obviously be important.”

Other analysts and foreign policy experts were less sure that intervening in Syria would benefit the president, pointing to the Libyan intervention as evidence. Though the Libyan intervention was successful in preventing threatened massacres and at ultimately deposing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi without the loss of American lives and at limited financial cost, it was still unpopular with the American people. A CBS News poll taken shortly after NATO operations ended in November 2011 found that 49 percent of respondents believed the U.S should not have gotten involved, while only 37 percent said the U.S. did the right thing.

“It’s always hard in advance to calibrate public reaction to U.S. military intervention, because we don’t know precisely what America would be doing in Syria, how much our allies would be contributing, how long the intervention would last, and what the outcome would be,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told TheDC.

“But if Libya — where there was no ‘rally’ effect — is any guidepost, Americans wouldn’t react well to yet another military engagement in the Middle East. After the long, costly Afghanistan and Iraq wars, there is a real weariness about taking on foreign commitments. There is strong support for anti-terrorist drone attacks and covert actions, but that’s about it.”

“Reinforcing this is public concern about spending and the debt,” he added. “With so many problems and needs at home, plus $15 trillion in debt, Americans will say, ‘Why are we spending tens or hundreds of millions to “free” Syria?'”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Barone suspects that such an intervention could hurt President Obama with his base.

“There is usually a ‘rally ’round the flag’ effect when a president commits military troops,” he explained to TheDC. “However, I think Obama would anger some on the left wing of the Democratic party if he ordered military involvement in Syria. And questions would be raised in many quarters as to the U.S. goals and how attainable they are.”

Though he favors intervention, Abrams, who is now senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that engaging in Syria or anywhere in the Middle East “risks undermining [the president’s] argument that he is getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“I understand that argument — though it obviously makes his election, rather than our national interests, the priority — but I think it’s wrong,” he said.

“As the massacres mount up in Syria, how is he going to maintain his hands-off posture? It will look increasingly amoral and sooner or later he’ll be forced to do more. And when he does it, many commentators will say it all should have been done sooner — and they’ll be right.”

But Republican pollster Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group says the calculus isn’t so difficult.

“I think it is rather simple,” he told TheDC, “if the president looks like he is doing what he thinks is the right thing it will not be a negative, if it looks political it will hurt him. With every story about another massacre, however, time is running out for Obama to not look political.”

Republican strategist Mary Matalin, however, argues that no matter what President Obama does, the economy will remain the most pressing issue for voters.

“One prefers to think no president would engage foreign policy for political reasons, even one with as great a need to change the subject as this president,” she told TheDC.

“But even if he did up our engagement, 1) It would not change the determinative issue, i.e., the economy/jobs/debt; 2) It would not change voter propensity or intensity for economic issues, 3) It would likely hurt him because voters have little if any interventionist desires in this cycle plus they would view it through an economic prism.”

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