“Public opposes action in Syria.” “Americans against U.S. intervention in Syria.” “Stay out of Syria.”
Such were the headlines after the release of a new CBS/New York Times poll on Tuesday. But a closer inspection reveals a somewhat different story.
The survey asked poll respondents, “Do you think the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and anti-government groups, or doesn't the United States have this responsibility?”
The results show 62 percent of respondents said the United States did not; 24 percent said there was a responsibility to act; 14 percent did not know.
Given the language of the polling question, it is difficult to conclude that Americans oppose action in the troubled Middle Eastern nation. Instead, by raising the idea of responsibility and explicitly framing the conflict as between the government and rebels, the survey suggests that Americans feel no obligation to intervene, especially for reasons specific to domestic Syrian politics. But that does not necessarily equate to opposition to action.
Another poll released this week, this one conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that if the question is framed slightly differently, Americans are more supportive of action.
Pew asked: “If it is confirmed that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against anti-government groups, would you favor or oppose the U.S. and its allies taking military action against the Syrian government?”
The results: 45 percent supported military action under these circumstances compared to 31 percent opposed. Nearly a quarter of Americans, 23 percent, had no opinion.
What both polls do show, however, is that Americans seem disinterested in the conflict. Only 39 percent in the CBS/NYT poll said they were following news about Syria somewhat or very closely; 60 percent said they were not following it too closely.
Likewise, 43 percent of Pew respondents said they were following news about chemical weapons use there fairly or very closely; 57 percent said they were not following too closely or not at all.
Despite the recent coverage of those revelations and commentary on President Obama’s so-called “red line,” interest in the conflict remains low and essentially unchanged since the civil war began two years ago.
The Pew poll found that no more than one in five Americans has followed the events very closely at any time since May 2011. At the same time, other recent events have captured Americans’ attention: the Boston bombings, gun control, sequester cuts, and more. Tensions in North Korea drew twice as much interest as Syria. The war in Afghanistan, frequently described as off Americans’ radar, drew about the same level of interest as Syria, according to Pew.