WASHINGTON —By 50 to 42 percent, more Americans say the United States should not take broad military action against the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons, according to an NBC News poll released Friday.
The public is more open to President Barack Obama’s proposed limited airstrikes to undermine Syria’s chemical weapons capability, but nearly eight in 10 believe he should be required to win congressional approval before using military force.
Obama’s position on foreign policy is weaker than ever, with record low approval for his handling of foreign policy (41 percent). By a 44 to 35 percent margin, more disapprove than approve of his performance on Syria in particular.
The poll marks the first major gauge of Americans’ position on Syria since a suspected mass chemical weapons attack against civilians. The poll was conducted on Wednesday and Thursday night, amid high-profile debates between the Obama administration and lawmakers over whether, and how, the United States should punish Syria’s government for allegedly using banned weapons.
The survey findings mark a break from the public’s overwhelming opposition to military action in surveys over the past year and reflects the importance of chemical weapons as a deciding factor. Despite the general opposition to involvement, 50 percent support using military force if it were limited to missiles from U.S. naval ships aimed at military and infrastructure used to carry out chemical weapons attacks, while 44 percent oppose this move. This specific question was asked only on Thursday night and carries a higher margin of sampling error.
A December 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that while more than seven in 10 opposed U.S. military action in Syria, more than six in 10 supported it if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people.
If the United States does take military action, fully 56 percent say the most important objective is to stop Syria from using chemical weapons. Far fewer say the focus should be on removing President Bashar Assad (16 percent) or stopping the fighting between government and rebel forces (15 percent).
While the administration insisted Thursday that Obama had the authority and determination to make his own decision on a military strike in Syria without congressional approval, Americans overwhelmingly oppose that approach. Fully 79 percent in the poll — including nearly seven in 10 Democrats — said Obama “should be required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria, while just 16 percent said he does not.
That finding jibes with more than four decades of polls showing the public believes presidents should win approval from Congress before using military force, even though the legislative body is deeply unpopular.
The poll was conducted Wednesday fish among a random national sample of 700 adults on conventional and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points for overall results.
Clement is a survey research analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.