Matt Baum on the Situation in Syria

August 28, 2013
By John Wihbey, Journalist’s Resource

Matthew A. Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research focuses on the intersection of domestic politics, international conflict and American foreign policy, as well as on the role of the news media and public opinion in contemporary American politics.

As part of the Journalist’s Resource ongoing “research chat” series, Baum gives his perspective on intervention in Syria and what we might learn from examining public deliberation and media coverage on the eve of prior conflicts. The following are edited portions of the interview:

Q: How does the fact there was, very likely, a major chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria change the dynamics and the calculus around public opinion and presidential decision-making?

The President drew that line on weapons of mass destruction, and now the administration is likely saying, “Darn, I wish we had not drawn that line in the sand.” I suspect they don’t really want to use force in Syria; I suspect they don’t think they have great options there. But the line was drawn very publicly, and so now as the provocations get more and more overt — and it gets harder and harder to obfuscate about whether the Syrian government really did use such weapons — the Obama administration is kind of backed into a corner.

Without the chemical weapons in the equation, I don’t think you’d be talking about direct engagement in Syria. It would be much less likely. I don’t think the strategic environment has changed that much. We don’t really have anyone to support who we have that much confidence in. There is no liberal Democrat. The rebels aren’t the “moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” as President Ronald Reagan called the Contras in Nicaragua.

Q: Based on the historical evidence, what do we know about the interplay between American public opinion and the President’s decision to go to war or intervene in a modern conflict? What is relevant to consider with respect to Syria?

Baum: There are several important things to keep in mind. The first is the degree to which the public is engaged with the issue, and that can be due to factors having nothing to do with the administration’s policy preferences. Engagement can also be a function of the overt effort by the administration to gain public interest in the policy — and acquiescence perhaps — or to keep the public distracted so it can have a relatively free hand. I think it’s safe to say that a President would like as free a hand as possible in foreign policy, and a lot of scrutiny reduces his latitude.

All else equal — and it’s rarely equal — a President would prefer not to spend a lot of time talking about an impending conflict. But there are factors weighing against that. The President might think that if you can draw a line in the sand, you might send a credible signal to the guy you are contemplating going to war against that you mean business. This might cause them to back down. As we know in hindsight, there has been more than one occasion when our adversaries didn’t really believe we were going to do what we said we were going to do. That’s not always true. Sometimes adversaries are willing to accept that risk, but there are times when they really didn’t believe it.

Q: Which brings us to today, and potential intervention in Syria. What does this all add up to in terms of understanding the public and policymakers now?

Baum: I think that the fact that the polls say Americans are wary in Syria does not mean all that much. If the Obama administration is able to do something that has a decisive effect, they will look like heroes. And if they look impotent in their use of military force, it will rebound against them. But the polling numbers showing American reticence, as of right now, doesn’t add up to much, because it’s really not a salient issue. It’s not enough to look at the numbers of people opposing intervention; you have to look at how much people care and at this point it isn’t very high on the list, as of today.

That can change if things escalate and it starts to look like a “real” war, as opposed to Libya — which was obviously real if you were there — but from the United States the perspective was that no Americans were on the ground and no American planes were being shot down.

Q: Let’s talk about the press and mass media effects on the public. There were obviously lots of criticisms about the way the press covered the run-up to the Iraq War. What are some lessons to bear in mind for the press?

Baum: As far as I can tell, if you look at the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal you are seeing the right questions. There is a lot more skepticism now than, say, the run-up to the Iraq War. During 2002-2003, critical thinking was out there in the press, but it was overwhelmed by the Bush administration’s all-out effort to justify its conflict. Here, with Syria, you have an intervention that, by all accounts, will not be anything like that scale and neither is the public relations campaign. I interpret that to mean that the Obama administration wants to do what it needs to do to get enough support and pursue its policies — but not even a little bit more. read more

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Matthew A. Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and professor of public policy

"The President drew that line on weapons of mass destruction, and now the administration is likely saying, 'Darn, I wish we had not drawn that line in the sand,'" says Baum.