The people’s role in Syria intervention

While President Barack Obama has decided not to intervene in Syria (at least for now) following a deal brokered by Russia that would force Bashar al-Assad to turn over his country’s chemical weapons stockpiles to international monitors, reactions to the possibility of a military intervention in Syria elicited a wide array of responses and non-responses from the American public. Unlike with previous American interventions in foreign nations, there was neither an outpouring of support for the war nor large-scale protests against intervention, as there were for both invasions of Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. Obama did not face the vitriolic opposition that both Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were forced to confront when continuing the Vietnam War. For most Americans, the possible intervention in Syria was just a news story, perhaps a relatively more important news story, but still not something that motivated them to get up off the couch or out from behind their computer and effect some sort of change to the policy-making process.

Culturally, Americans seem to be less willing to do things in response to policy decisions than they have in the past, and this holds especially true for younger generations. While political leanings have become more polarized in the last decade, political action seems to have gone by the wayside. While the announcement of a draft for the war in Vietnam sparked nationwide protests and even riots, the American public’s response to the prospect of a military strike in Syria was a whimper in comparison.

This is not to say that “we the people” ought to be far more concerned with possible chemical weapon use or the killing of innocent civilians by an authoritarian dictator in a far-flung Middle Eastern country, though we probably should be concerned with such matters, but more to say that perhaps the foreign policy-making process has become too far removed from the average American citizen.

The Vietnam War had tangible effects for 18-year-olds, who could be drafted and legally obligated to fight in Southeast Asia. They had a very good reason to organize and protest; their lives were on the line. The American public’s reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan were similar: more than 4,000 people were murdered in an act of terrorism, and someone had to pay. And while we’re certainly not advocating the use of a national draft, it can’t just be coincidence that youth apathy coincides with the lack of local impact that potential military action would cause.

The conflict in Syria has epitomized this shift in focus. The two stories revolving around the Syrian conflict that garnered the most discussion were not concerned with actually intervening in Syria. Instead, news outlets focused on Vladimir Putin’s criticism of the U.S. in the New York Times and the political implications of Obama’s failure to secure the necessary votes to push a military authorization through Congress.

While Time magazine put Putin on the cover of its international editions after the Russian president’s op-ed, the American version asked whether college athletes should be paid. As Time’s cover is heavily influenced by what people want to read, it’s a scary indictment of American apathy that the magazine’s editors didn’t think Syria conversation-worthy enough to merit cover status.

Around campus, and around the country in general, conversations about Syria have been few and far between. American citizens are certainly not obligated to follow the conflict in Syria closely or have a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of what is undeniably a complex issue. Part of what makes the debate over intervention so nebulous is that the issue is not black-and-white, and many people don’t have enough time or energy to devote to becoming informed.

But for a country that considers itself the watchman of the world, we have a dearth of interest and public discussion about the dominant international story of the moment. While it’s an improvement over the 1960s that our citizens are no longer forced into international conflict via the draft, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.

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