December 14, 2012

Americans on Middle East turmoil: Keep us out of it

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Pew Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to CNN

The pace of change in the Middle East – in Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Israel – is accelerating as 2012 draws to a close. And the centripetal force generated by these developments threatens to draw the United States ever deeper into the region. But as the Obama administration considers what role the United States can and should play there in the months ahead, the White House faces a political dilemma at home. The American people are not paying attention and are deeply skeptical of greater U.S. engagement in a corner of the world that looks increasingly unstable.

The spreading turmoil in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring has soured American attitudes toward the region’s prospects and has not increased Americans’ appetites for greater U.S. involvement there.

In April 2011, not long after the fall of the autocratic Tunisian and Egyptian governments, the American public was divided over whether such changes in political leadership would lead to lasting improvements for people living in those countries, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

By October 2012 a majority (57 percent) were convinced that the Arab Spring would not lead to a long-term change for the better. Possibly disillusioned with what they had seen transpire in Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere, just over half of Americans preferred stable governments in the region, even if that meant less democracy (so much for president Obama’s May 2011 commitment “to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”). And almost two-thirds thought Washington should be less involved in leadership changes in the Middle East.

The civil war in Syria has claimed tens of thousands of lives, the conflict appears to be worsening and there is growing concern in official circles in Washington that the Syrian government may use chemical weapons against its own people. But less than half the American public is paying much attention. Only 38 percent said they were following the political violence in Syria closely in early December, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

This may help explain why recent polls show that the American public has no appetite for U.S. intervention in that war-torn country. More than three-in-five Americans say the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria, according to an early December Pew Research Center survey. And 65 percent oppose arming anti-government rebels in Syria. Such sentiments remain unchanged since the Spring of 2012. Notably, there is no partisan difference on aiding the foes of the Assad regime.

And even the recent fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza has not roused much American interest. Only 49 percent of the U.S. public were closely following news of renewed violence between Israel and Palestine in mid-November. And an early October Pew survey found only a quarter of Americans wanted to increase support for Israel.

But Americans’ sentiments still lie with the Israelis. Half say they sympathize with Israel, only 10 percent sympathize more with the Palestinians.

Yet partisan politics could complicate future American action with regard to Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians. Only 33 percent of liberal Democrats sympathize with Israel more than the Palestinians, while 75 percent of conservative Republicans side with Israel.

Events on the ground in the Middle East may soon force decisions in Washington about a new degree of American engagement in the region. Whatever the Obama administration decides, the public’s views are clear. They would prefer to sit this one out.