On foreign policy, a wide divide between elites and the people

By Daniel DePetris

What should the United States do to ensure that the civil war in Syria ends?  Should more U.S. troops be deployed on Syrian soil to hasten the defeat of the Islamic State? And is it time for U.S. officials to put a greater premium on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as official U.S. policy calls for?

These are the questions that the incoming administration will be confronted with as soon as they walk through the White House doors on January 20, 2017. If public sentiment is any indication though, the administration should tread carefully before devoting additional U.S. military resources into the conflict. 

The Syrian civil war is as complicated and convoluted as civil wars can be and a survey conducted by the University of Maryland underscores just how wary the American public is about this war and America’s place in it.

Over the past six years, official U.S. policy in Syria has been clear on the status of Bashar al-Assad and his regime — the only way the civil conflict in Syria will end and the country can begin the hard work of rebuilding is if Assad steps down from the presidency and permits the creation of a national unity government.  For the foreign policy establishment in Washington, Assad needs to go, the sooner the better.

The University of Maryland poll, however, reveals yet again the wide disconnect between the American people at the bottom and the bureaucrats at the top whose job description it is to implement American foreign policy.  Only 35 percent of Americans polled in the Maryland survey believe that the top U.S. priority in Syria should be removing the Syrian government, a number that dwarfs in comparison to the 52 percent who argue that the defeat of the Islamic State is far more important for the safety and security of the United States. 

One of the most interesting discoveries in the Maryland poll, is the American people’s perception of Russia and its influence in the conflict.

It isn’t a mystery that the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship is perhaps at its lowest point since 2008. If contacts between Washington and Moscow were strained then, they are almost at a breaking point today; Russia’s military support on behalf of the Syrian regime, primarily through the outsourcing of the Russian Air Force to the Syrian military, has provided Damascus with a new lease on life and has significantly degraded the possibility of the U.S. reaching its objectives in the war.  Yet despite the troubled relationship between the two countries, 60 percent of those surveyed believe it is important to work with the Russians in order to degrade and defeat the Islamic State.

These numbers aren’t necessarily surprising in and of themselves. The 2003 invasion of Iraq — a war that was based on false pretenses and inaccurate assumptions — and the costly, eight-year occupation of that country continues to be seen by the majority of the American people as a mistake as disastrous as the Vietnam War. 

Americans since then have shown themselves to be incredibly reluctant to plunge into another nation’s civil war or sectarian fight without knowing all of the consequences that could result from American involvement and all of the risks that could occur if things don’t go according to plan (as is often the case).

 Despite the fact that regime-change is still very much a part of the discussion in Washington, the phrase has become a dirty word for many outside the Beltway — a legacy of interventions that were sold to the public as quick and painless turning into lengthy and bloody affairs that often produce situations more harmful to the country than would have been the reality without overt U.S. involvement.

Without a catastrophic act of terrorism on the American homeland or an international crisis of epic proportions, this reluctance is unlikely to go away anytime soon  The incoming administration will have its work cut out for them in regaining the trust between the foreign policy establishment and the American people that it’s supposed to serve.  While difficult to achieve, the next president must shrink the gap between the American public and their elites and view this effort as a top priority.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on November 11, 2016. Read more HERE.