On Thursday, April 6, the United States military launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, aimed at Al Shayrat Airfield in western Syria. Purportedly in response to the usage of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people, the strike was the first direct military action against the Assad regime by the US government since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. While President Trump had previously been on the record as critical of plans to militarily intervene in Syria, his reaction to seeing photographs of the victims of chemical weapons strikes, combined with emphatic support for retaliatory actions from some of his key advisors, was apparently enough to shift his views and order the strike.
The strike was also the first major military action of Trump’s presidency. With it come a number of questions, not only about how it will affect the situation in Syria, but also how it will affect his image as president. Significant military actions, whether in the form of wars, major missile strikes, or humanitarian interventions, are watershed moments in a presidency. They can dramatically change public perception of a commander-in-chief, either in positive or negative ways. How the public responds to Trump’s involvement in Syria will depend on how the conflict progresses, but also on how his actions line up with their attitudes on military interventions.
Historically, military action taken by a sitting President has frequently shown evidence of affecting presidential approval. This was most recently observed throughout the various US/Middle East conflicts, particularly under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. However, the effect is not always uniform. Political Science Professor Richard Eichenberg explains that,“a dramatic military intervention can increase public approval of a president but there’s a qualification—only if it’s a truly dramatic one, and only if there’s unified sentiment among political and intellectual leaders about the wisdom of it.”
This, he says, is why Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 enjoyed such high support and boosted his approval ratings.
“This was a truly dramatic event,” he said. “The whole thing was basically seen as retaliation for an attack on the US that unified the country. The leaders of both countries and the entire press agreed that something had to be done about Al Qaeda.”
Trump’s approval has hovered around 40 percent for the past month or so, fluctuating only by about +/- 3 points, including before and after the recent strikes. To contrast, in the wake of 9/11, Bush’s approval surged by a staggering 35 percent within just a week of the attacks. Gallup has observed similar spikes in presidential approval during times of intense conflicts dating back to the attacks on Pearl Harbor in WWII, an observation that has come to be called the “rally effect,” which most often occurs after direct threats or attacks on the United States.
This is another important distinction about the Syria strikes. “As horrible as the Syrian Civil War is, [it] hasn’t affected the US very much,” Eichenberg said.
While military action in Syria has not been buoyed by the rally effect in the same way as in the case of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, there is significant support from the American population for some form of intervention. According to a recent Politico poll conducted after the airstrikes, nearly two thirds of Americans support increasing the role the US is playing in Syria in response to the usage of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. The explanation for why this effect exists seems relatively simple—just like President Trump, the American people are disgusted with the way Assad has used chemical weapons.
“Using chemical weapons is very much a strategic goal,” said Malik Mufti, a Political Science Professor. “He wants to terrify people so much that all support for the uprising against him will disappear. The evidence shows that it’s working.”
The same reaction seemed to hold among Tufts students. In a survey of 32 students conducted by the Tufts Observer, 87.5 percent of respondents said that they felt retaliatory strikes against a foreign government for its own internal actions could be justified. One respondent summed up much of this sentiment concisely: “I believe we should absolutely intervene to protect human rights. If we don’t, their blood is on our hands.”
Though the abstract concept of intervention is popular, attitudes become much less unanimous when it comes to what specific type of intervention should be used. In the aforementioned Politico poll, just over 50 percent of respondents said they supported airstrikes, while even fewer reported supporting boots on the ground. Similarly, less than 50 percent of Tufts respondents said they supported the recent airstrikes. This seems to show that, while desire among Americans for some kind of action is palpable, what kind of action that should be is much less clear.
Despite these varying viewpoints, perceptions of Trump as a leader have remained relatively separate from these disagreements about military action, and the effect of intervention thus far may not be terribly significant.
As Eichenberg explained earlier, though the strikes dominated news media for several days, they faded from the public forefront quickly, and left opinions as torn as before.
“His approval rating is the same, presumably for the reason that it was a relatively minor affair, it has already disappeared from news discussion, and there’s substantial division in media and political circles about whether it was wise and likely to be effective,” Eichenberg said.
Furthermore, American opinion changes depending on the nature and amount of action taken. A Washington Post article written by Adam Taylor in August 2016 found evidence that Americans favored US involvement in Syria, but only if it were via negotiation rather than combat. This viewpoint, for the most part, transcended party lines.
“In general, supporters of both major political parties were fairly in line with each other, with Republicans slightly more in favor of military action than Democrats—more than half of Republicans (53 percent) favored sending ground troops in to fight extremists, for example, whereas just 42 percent of Democrats and 32 percent of independents agreed,” Taylor wrote.
Eichenberg believes that this is a consensus that still holds true today.
“I don’t think Trump is going to put a large number of American troops on the ground. The last thing the American public wants to do is put troops in Syria. Were he to get involved […] it would have a very negative impact on his approval ratings,” he said.
Tufts students surveyed on the matter also demonstrated varying reactions to Trump’s decisions concerning Syria.
“In evaluating this military action and how it impacts my opinion of the Administration, I have separated the airstrikes from the overall debacle that is the Trump [p]residency,” one respondent said. “Nonetheless, I support these limited measures to dissuade the Assad regime from committing further atrocities while presenting minimal risk for the United States.”
Another student, however, disapproved of the strikes. “Trump ordered them without any though[t] to a long term strategy in Syria, which is what we need” they said. “I’m not at all confident that Trump’s administration can make and execute the strategy we need.”
But as the polls suggest, divided public opinion has not been enough to upset Trump’s overall ratings. Though the action has settled for the moment, it is hard to say where the conflict will go from here, and how it will further complicate Trump’s time in office.
“It’s very hard to predict with this president what he will do because the policies change so much day to day,” Mufti said. “There is a chance it could escalate, but it’s hard to know.”
He added that “In the long term, if [Trump] gets into a quagmire, his popularity will be hurt. There is a real aversion to long term conflicts, but not to bombings and missile strikes like these.”
Eichenberg agreed. “It’s a pretty common observation that Americans have war fatigue,” he said. “Americans are not interested in getting involved in wars.”
For now, President Trump seems to have heeded this advice—he stated last week that he would not be sending American troops into Syria. However, given his habit of dramatically changing his opinions, particularly on this issue, it is impossible to predict whether he will stand by his promise. All that seems certain at this point is that Americans do not want a war on their hands, and if Trump switches his position once again, it will cost him dearly.