By John J. Martin
Americans now have a greater ability to access information than at any other time in history. Never before have the internal workings of the US government and its political system been so transparent, whether intentionally or not, in the eyes of its citizens. The American public claims to feel better informed now than at the turn of the century, mostly attributable to the surplus of information now easily accessible online.
Living in a world filled with perpetual bombardment of conflicting ideas, many people have become skeptics toward their leaders’ claims. The increasing incidents of whistleblowing have only further justified this mentality. Americans are no longer as easily fooled by their government as in the past, and cannot simply be manipulated by falsehoods into supporting a particular cause. Consequently, unless a truly legitimate motive is provided, the American public is likely to remain unsupportive of furthering US intervention in Syria to a full-fledged ground war.
Three-quarters of the US population supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq at its onset. The overwhelming backing of this boots-on-the-ground operation was clearly a byproduct of the post-September 11 fear that understandably permeated the public. Nevertheless, American support for the Iraq War was also rooted in two key assumptions: Saddam Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney even stated in a 2002 speech, “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” There were no WMDs in Iraq, though, and no Iraqi authority was ever found to be working with agents of al-Qaeda. While the US intelligence community knew this at the time, the American people did not.
It is not surprising then that only 18 percent of Americans currently support potential ground troops involvement in Syria, according to a CBS News poll from early April. They have become more aware of the many deceits and failures of the US government in its previous major intervention, owing both to inner government sources during the engagement and to data provided in the aftermath of the conflict. Millions of Americans were presented with images in the media of the crimes against humanity committed by their military because of leaks such as the Abu Ghraib torture photos and WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video. Furthermore, public federal budget information indicates that the US government spent more than $800 billion in Iraq since 2003, a cost that would surely disturb many Americans in the age of “America First.” The US population knows now the true nature of the Iraq War, from its price to its dishonest foundation, and they are not keen on repeating the past.
Naturally, there are a variety of differences between the pre-war Iraq environment and the current circumstances surrounding Syria, which may also be influencing public opinion. Operation Iraqi Freedom took place less than two years after the September 11th attacks, a tragedy that was fresher in the minds of Americans than it is now. Moreover, the US government had already confronted Saddam Hussein in a previous war, which is not the case with Assad. And while the Syrian Civil War has been partially defined by ISIL’s presence, it has been treated more as a humanitarian crisis than as an affront to national security by a dictator. But even with these differences, the effects of the Iraq War continue to resonate in the minds of Americans throughout their discussion of Syria. They may not be identical twins, but they certainly look related enough in Americans’ eyes to set off alarms.
The overall public perceptions and conditions of pre-war Iraq and modern day Syria share enough similarities to only further emphasize the significance of this low support for military intervention. Most Americans viewed Iraq as a danger to US interests immediately before its invasion, and currently 57 percent of Americans believe the chemical weapon attacks in Syria constitute a direct threat to US national security. Hussein was seen for years as a violator of human rights against his own people, just as Assad is portrayed now in the media and by US leaders. There were also numerous airstrikes conducted in Iraq leading up to the invasion meant to weaken the country’s resources, similar to the air campaigns in Syria begun under President Obama that are now targeting the country’s military bases.
There is still much uncertainty as to how the Trump administration plans to further US involvement in Syria. But if President Trump wishes to start another war, he will need a truly legitimate reason to garner the support of the American people. His choices are to either appeal to the interests of national security or make a humanitarian case. While the former option is still on the table, the latter will prove difficult as Americans have already been aware of the atrocities occurring under Assad for over half a decade. Regardless, the US government will be held more accountable to its statements now than it had been under the Bush administration. The world is more transparent, and information is more accessible than ever. Americans are well aware of the costs of war, and whistleblowers have the resources to pounce on missteps or lies. President Trump may want war, but the American public will not support this action under any pretenses other than the truth.
John J. Martin is the Global Transparency Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John earned his BA in International Relations from New York University in 2016.