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Russia deal on Syria: Why Americans like but don't believe in it

Polls show a large majority of Americans back Russia's deal on Syria's chemical weapons, while a solid majority think it will fail. That contradiction works as long as US interests aren't at stake.

By Staff Writer / September 17, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands after making statements following meetings regarding Syria, at a news conference in Geneva Saturday.

Ruben Sprich/Reuters/File

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Washington

The US public strongly supports the Russian-proposed deal to junk Syria’s chemical weapons, according to two just-released major polls. But voters do not really think the deal will work, and pluralities continue to oppose US airstrikes against the Syrian government – even if diplomacy collapses.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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What’s the bottom line from this chain of opinions? It appears as if US voters appear unconvinced that the nation has vital interests at stake in the dispute over Syria’s chemical weapons, despite President Obama’s insistence to the contrary.

“Survey results underscore the difficulty Obama has faced trying to convince a war-weary American public that what happens in Syria matters for the US,” writes the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan on The Fix political blog.

Let’s step back and take a look at the raw numbers to try and make sense of the public’s somewhat contradictory opinions here, OK?

We’ll start with what voters like. According to a Washington Post/ABC News survey released on Tuesday, 79 percent of respondents approve of Russia’s idea of putting Syria’s chemical weapons in the hands of the UN, which will then destroy them. Only 16 percent said they oppose the plan.

A Pew poll released Monday had similar figures: 67 percent gave thumbs up to Obama’s decision to delay airstrikes in order to give diplomacy time to work.

But if you dig beneath the surface with these surveys you find that the public has little faith that the Russian plan will actually work. Sixty-eight percent of respondents to the Post/ABC poll are at least somewhat confident that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad will not turn over his chemical arsenal.

In the Pew survey 57 percent of respondents said flatly that Syria will never give up its weapons in response to diplomacy.

“The public has little trust in Syria,” writes Pew.

That does not translate to support for US military action to deter Assad from further chemical use if the diplomatic track proves a dead end. In the Post poll, a plurality of 48 percent holds that Congress should not approve military action if diplomacy fails. Forty-four percent said Congress should approve such action. Again, Pew’s numbers are similar: 49 percent say they’d oppose airstrikes under such circumstances. Thirty seven percent would favor them.

Why the unease with the use, or threat of use, of the US military? According to the Post/ABC results, it could be because many voters don’t think it matters to the US. Forty-eight percent say America’s vital interests are not at stake in the situation. Forty-four percent say they are.

Looks like Obama’s prime time speech attempting to outline why the US is involved in Syria did not convince everybody.

As for Obama himself, a majority of 54 percent in the Post poll said he was a strong leader. The back-and-forth of his Syria policy does not seem to have affected that perception.

But that does not mean the public approves of the policy. Fifty-three percent in the Post poll said they disapproved of the way Obama is handling the Syria situation. Only 36 percent approved.

“Those numbers aren’t a vote of confidence for the Commander in Chief,” writes right-leaning talk show host Ed Morrissey on Hot Air.

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