In fact, dozens of academic studies that test when a head of state will use an international crisis to distract from domestic problems seem to anticipate that he will do exactly that. The studies have found positive correlations between the use of force overseas with economic conditions, unemployment, approval ratings, control of Congress, and others, the logic being that military intervention can be a useful distraction to divert the public’s attention away from a bad economy or high unemployment. The presence of most of those domestic conditions seems to make American intervention in Syria even more inevitable.
The problem is that the empirical studies have usually only presented instances of correlation rather than causation: they demonstrate that presidents use military force overseas when certain domestic factors are present but less often demonstrate that presidents use force because of the presence of those domestic factors. Very few of those studies support their findings with documentary evidence that would more clearly show that presidents decide to use force because of domestic struggles, not least because very little documentary evidence exists to prove that domestic concerns guided the decision to use force rather than international factors.
More often than not the opposite is true: domestic factors constrain presidents rather than enable them. Depending on the media coverage (itself a significant independent variable), the public frequently supports American military intervention in humanitarian crises. The problem is that the public supports intervention only if the United States is successful and only if American casualties are kept to a minimum, ideally zero. This point is obvious to the point of being banal (when would the public ever support intervention in a bloodbath that the United States might lose?) but it is important enough that it guides policymakers almost more than any other consideration. As a result, policymakers usually try to intervene in situations with a high chance of success, with significant international support, and with an understanding of how an exit strategy will work once the objectives have been achieved.
Syria offers no guarantee of success, and would be closer to Lebanon 1982 than Libya 2011. The most obvious source of danger is Syria’s sophisticated air-defense system and chemical weapons program. Syrian opposition is unified in its opinion of Assad but not much else, which means that as soon as Assad is overthrown the violence may actually increase as those groups now vie for power among themselves. In the meantime, both the opposition and Assad seem committed to unrestrained violence in their bid to keep power or take power. Worse still, it is not clear how much American or Western military intervention could help. As Slobodan Milosevic demonstrated in Bosnia and Kosovo, it is possible for the autocrat to exploit any limits that the intervening powers may set upon themselves, and it is likely that no intervention short of a full-scale ground invasion could offer much hope at changing the situation on the ground.
None of these conditions would make American intervention domestically popular—probably just the opposite. Intervention in Syria could distract from the economy, but with an issue that could be much more damaging. Intervention in Libya was unpopular with the Democratic base that was worried that Obama was starting another “endless war” in the Middle East. Interestingly, Mitt Romney has so far put only the minimum distance between himself and Obama on Syria since he supports arming the opposition but has not joined congressional calls to establish a no-fly zone. Jennifer Rubin, author of The Washington Post’s conservative “Right Turn” blog did not even list Syria in her ten foreign policy suggestions for Romney. Provided there is not a dramatic change in the situation, the Syrian uprising is practically a non-issue in the election. Obama should probably hope that it stays that way.
Paul Nadeau is editor-in-chief of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, the flagship academic journal of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He graduated from the Fletcher School in May 2012 with a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) degree focusing in U.S. foreign policy.