This morning, Foreign Policy published new results from a poll asking Americans what the president should do about the bloodshed in Syria, which primarily builds the case for why foreign policy shouldn't be conducted by opinion poll. The survey, conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, found a majority of Americans (63 to 58 percent) support a more significant intervention in Syria. It's not a foolish opinion in and of itself, but if you look closer at the poll, it's clear the respondents have no idea what they're talking about.
"A sizable majority of those polled support a U.S. role in enforcing sanctions and a no-fly zone in Syria," writes FP's Dina Smeltz. However "a larger majority opposes bombing Syrian air defenses, which could be a prerequisite step to enforcing a no-fly zone." Could be a prerequisite to enforcing a no-fly zone is actually a very generous way to describe the bombing of Syrian air defenses in this case. In fact, as former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter notes via Twitter, bombing Syrian air defenses is actually a "pre-condition" to setting up a no-fly zone.
This is a point that has been recited endlessly by Pentagon officials who have mapped out America's options for intervention: The creation of a no-fly zone would follow the destruction of Syria's air defenses. The reason this hasn't happened yet is step A is a lot easier said than done, as National Journal's Yochi Dreazen reported in March during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey. "Dempsey ... pointed out that Syria’s air defenses were five times more sophisticated as those in Libya, making airstrikes riskier and more complicated. [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta, for his part, said that the systems had been set up in heavily populated areas, which meant that American strikes could cause “severe collateral damage.”
To be clear, it's not the American public's fault for not knowing the logistics of creating a no-fly zone. (Last time I checked, "demonstrates an ability to stage foreign interventions" wasn't a prerequisite on most job applications.) But it goes to show the limitations of survey results probing the American public on highly complex foreign interventions. It's sort of an elitist view, but it's a point long ago cemented by intellectual Walter Lippmann who equated the public affairs savvy of an average citizen to a theatergoer who walks into a play in the middle of it and leaves before the curtain falls. (see Public Opinion published in 1922). It's not to say that public opinion should be irrelevant to foreign policy debates, but when it gets down to mapping out specific strategic options, it's not really a layman's strong suit.