Setting aside the 535 Americans on Capitol Hill who will vote directly on the president's proposal to attack Syria, Americans are largely opposed to the idea. Unless, that is, it's bombing done in conjunction with allies, and definitely not if it means arming rebels. That first stipulation doesn't seem likely. The second one appears to have already been broken.
Americans' opinions on the looming conflict were captured in a survey conducted for ABC News on Tuesday. The top line is that 59 percent oppose the sort of strikes that the president has proposed. And attitudes don't fluctuate a whole lot by demographic. This is slightly better than what one member of Congress found as he informally surveyed his constituents.
Below, we've taken the responses from the poll and singled out the net approval — that is, the number of people who approve of the action minus those who disapprove — for each of the three options. In only one case is there net positive approval in any demographic: men and Republicans are more likely to favor strikes by a coalition of forces than they are to oppose the idea. In every other situation, with every other demographic, the public disapproves.
There are some interesting points. Independent voters are far more likely to oppose any sort of action than their Democratic or Republican neighbors. Only on the idea of arming Syrian rebels are voters from the major parties even close to the level of opposition shown by independents.
But arming Syrian rebels may already be happening. A Wall Street Journal report on Monday suggested that the CIA's ability to act as a weapons dealer, approved as of July, hasn't yet gone into effect. "U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery "pipelines" to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands," the Journal reports.
The CIA is, however, actively supporting the rebels on the ground in Syria. The Times noted on Tuesday that American-trained fighters are heading into battle.
Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the C.I.A., was beginning to sneak into Syria.
The idea, then, is that those fighters are using their own weapons, despite the CIA's authorization to provide weapons. Whether or not that's an accurate description, it is only due to concerns about implementation that the activity most strongly opposed by Americans hasn't yet gone into effect. The CIA could start arming rebels tomorrow, if it wanted to.
So the current debate in Washington centers not on that, but on whether or not Congress will approve the middle option, unilateral strikes — an action that is still opposed by 59 percent of the country. As for those Republican men who'd like to see allied action, including the involvement of countries like the U.K. and France? They're out of luck. That most popular response is also the least likely to happen, as the British Parliament has rejected the idea.
This is not, one might assume, how representative democracy works at its most flawless.