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Intervention in Syria, the media and public opinion: Research chat with Harvard’s Matt Baum

2013 interview with political scientist Matthew Baum of Harvard on the news media, public opinion dynamics and implications for intervention in Syria.

Matt Baum (
Matt Baum (

Matthew A. Baum is the Kalb Professor of Global Communications at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research focuses on the intersection of domestic politics, international conflict and American foreign policy, as well as on the role of the news media and public opinion in contemporary American politics. His 2010 book War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War, co-authored with UCLA’s Tim J. Groeling, is a comprehensive examination of issues such as media story framing and the effects on public sentiment.

Baum’s 2013 study “The Iraq Coalition of the Willing and (Politically) Able: Party Systems, the Press, and Public Influence on Foreign Policy,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, furnishes a number of insights relevant to the current moment, as American and international intervention is being contemplated in the Syrian conflict. He demonstrates the key role the news media can play in decisions of war and peace. “In an era of rapidly expanding and diversifying media,” Baum writes, “the potential for media to influence foreign policy via its effects on citizen awareness of and attitudes regarding the activities of their leaders is … increasing.”

As part of our ongoing “research chat” series, we asked him about intervention in Syria and what we might learn from examining public deliberation and media coverage on the eve of prior conflicts. The following is an edited interview:


Journalist’s Resource: Based on the historical evidence, what do we know about the interplay between American public opinion and the President’s decision to go to war or intervene in a modern conflict? What is relevant to consider with respect to Syria?

Matt Baum: There are several important things to keep in mind. The first is the degree to which the public is engaged with the issue, and that can be due to factors having nothing to do with the administration’s policy preferences. Engagement can also be a function of the overt effort by the administration to gain public interest in the policy — and acquiescence perhaps — or to keep the public distracted so it can have a relatively free hand. I think it’s safe to say that a President would like as free a hand as possible in foreign policy, and a lot of scrutiny reduces his latitude. All else equal — and it’s rarely equal — a President would prefer not to spend a lot of time talking about an impending conflict. But there are factors weighing against that. The President might think that if you can draw a line in the sand, you might send a credible signal to the guy you are contemplating going to war against that you mean business. This might cause them to back down. As we know in hindsight, there has been more than one occasion when our adversaries didn’t really believe we were going to do what we said we were going to do. That’s not always true. Sometimes adversaries are willing to accept that risk, but there are times when they really didn’t believe it.

When George H.W. Bush went public on Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and loudly proclaimed “This will not stand,” he tied his own hands and basically put himself in a position where he really couldn’t back down — and sent a clear signal to Saddam Hussein, who, we have since learned, didn’t really believe it. This is different than 2003 and the Iraq War, when Hussein believed he could hold out long enough that the coalition would fracture.

Syrian-conflict-(Wikipedia)So there are these variables: When do you want to get the public engaged, and when do you not? It’s interesting that we’ve had so much conflict in the past decade or so that it’s actually more difficult than it was to get the public really focused. The long conflict in Iraq was of intense interest domestically for a very extended period. It sort of sucked the oxygen out of any potential public engagement with Afghanistan, giving President Obama a relatively free hand there, for better or worse. He was never under that much political pressure there.

The next instance was Libya, where there was very little risk to American lives. It was an air campaign. The administration didn’t talk about it much and the American public didn’t pay much attention. In Syria, where a conflict has been dragging on for several years, we’re in a situation where our economy is somewhat less dependent on the comings and goings of crises in the Middle East. We’ve had several years of the Arab Spring — the upheavals of the Middle East — and gas prices have not changed that much. I think there’s not all that much interest.

JR: Which brings us to today, and potential intervention in Syria. What does this all add up to in terms of understanding the public and policymakers now?

Matt Baum: I think that the fact that the polls say Americans are wary in Syria does not mean all that much. If the Obama administration is able to do something that has a decisive effect, they will look like heroes. And if they look impotent in their use of military force, it will rebound against them. But the polling numbers showing American reticence, as of right now, doesn’t add up to much, because it’s really not a salient issue. It’s not enough to look at the numbers of people opposing intervention; you have to look at how much people care and at this point it isn’t very high on the list, as of today. That can change if things escalate and it starts to look like a “real” war, as opposed to Libya — which was obviously real if you were there — but from the United States the perspective was that no Americans were on the ground and no American planes were being shot down. If Syria looks like that, the public won’t get all that engaged. It would potentially be a foreign policy success for the Obama administration, though coming awfully late, after a lot of horrible things have happened there. But if it doesn’t go well and America is gradually sucked in — throwing good resources after bad — eventually it could become a big political liability, and you could get significant public engagement. This could have happened in Afghanistan, too, if more Americans started getting killed. But it hasn’t escalated in that way.

JR: Let’s talk about the press and mass media effects on the public. There were obviously lots of criticisms about the way the press covered the run-up to the Iraq War. What are some lessons to bear in mind for the press?

FSA_Fighter-(Wikipedia)Matt Baum: As far as I can tell, if you look at the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal you are seeing the right questions. There is a lot more skepticism now than, say, the run-up to the Iraq War. During 2002-2003, critical thinking was out there in the press, but it was overwhelmed by the Bush administration’s all-out effort to justify its conflict. Here, with Syria, you have an intervention that, by all accounts, will not be anything like that scale and neither is the public relations campaign. I interpret that to mean that the Obama administration wants to do what it needs to do to get enough support and pursue its policies — but not even a little bit more. That’s all it wants to do. Because the last thing the administration needs is intense scrutiny of its actions there. I don’t think it believes it’s going to get Syrian President Assad to back down and surrender the keys to the palace because of whatever threats it might make. That neutralizes the benefits of drawing lines in the sand for the Obama administration.

Overall, I guess that I’m not that critical in terms of how journalists have been covering Syria in that regard.

JR: Sometimes there is a narrative logic that develops in foreign policy stories, where there is a bad guy and the whole goal is to get rid of him and there is not much consideration of what comes next. This can lead to a failure to think through the post-conflict, or post-regime, consequences and environment.

Matt Baum: The press, in its effort to be neutral, usually focuses on process and strategy and not on geopolitical ramifications. Reporters tend to look at decisions — who is making them and when — and they don’t ask the “So what?” questions. As soon as you get into them, it becomes tough to appear objective — they’re going to lead you to normative conclusions. Let’s say you explore the idea that intervention could lead to fragmentation, deterioration and ultimately the unraveling of the state of Syria. That could be disastrous. If you write a story that says that, that has a normative implication, whether you intend it or not. There is a tendency, at least within the legacy media, not to do that sort of thing, or at least not emphasize it.

Then there is the fact that there are not that many reporters who have a particularly deep understanding of the Middle East. There aren’t that many Americans who have deep knowledge of the region — myself included. So it would be really hard for very many journalists — maybe Tom Friedman and a few others can do this in a sophisticated way — to play out the long-term geopolitical implications in an appropriate way. Rather than putting yourself out on a ledge, it makes more sense if you are a reporter to talk about process and strategy — what the decisions are and what’s happening, not the implications of what is being done. That’s a much heavier lift.

There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that journalists’ coverage tends to reflect the tenor of elite debate in Washington. Right now, on the Syria question, it appears that among Congressional leaders, the serious foreign policy centers and others, opinion is sort of all over the map. Several prominent Republicans who support military action — Senators McCain and Graham and the like — say we should intervene, though no boots on the ground. Libertarian types adamantly oppose it. Democrats are always betwixt and between on aggressive use of force, because they tend to not like them based on principle. But their guy, President Obama, is in power. They are pushed and pulled.

US-aid-to-Syria-(Wikipedia)So this is a case that maximizes the ability of the media to influence public opinion, because there is not a clear narrative coming out of Washington. When there is a clear narrative and elites are pretty much lined up, that is going to be the story. It’s like trying to swim in quicksand to go against it as a reporter. With Syria, this is the opposite: This is a case where you can find any story line you want and find prominent supporters for it. Those are the cases when the press can really have influence on public opinion — and they may well have with Syria. It is very different than Iraq in 2003, for instance, in that regard.

JR: How does the fact there was, very likely, a major chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria change the dynamics and the calculus around public opinion and presidential decision-making?

Matt Baum: The President drew that line on weapons of mass destruction, and now the administration is likely saying, “Darn, I wish we had not drawn that line in the sand.” I suspect they don’t really want to use force in Syria; I suspect they don’t think they have great options there. But the line was drawn very publicly, and so now as the provocations get more and more overt — and it gets harder and harder to obfuscate about whether the Syrian government really did use such weapons — the Obama administration is kind of backed into a corner. It works to their advantage in terms of the contextual buildup and framing around weapons of mass destruction. The message is that it’s the Rubicon that one cannot cross, and woe be it to anyone who crosses the Rubicon. We’ve heard this ever since the Gulf War pretty much non-stop, mostly with respect to Iraq but not always. So there is a very salient, accessible narrative there for the press to latch on to and the public to grasp and accept. If you cross that line, you are going to be punished. I think that explains why you’ve got some Republicans supporting military action, as much as anything. Without the chemical weapons in the equation, I don’t think you’d be talking about direct engagement in Syria. It would be much less likely. I don’t think the strategic environment has changed that much. We don’t really have anyone to support who we have that much confidence in. There is no liberal Democrat. The rebels aren’t the “moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” as President Ronald Reagan called the Contras in Nicaragua.

JR: For deeper perspective, is there any academic work, beyond your own book War Stories, that might be a relevant read on these questions of war and the public?

Matt Baum: I would recommend reading: American Public Opinion on the Iraq War, by Ole Holsti; John Mueller’s “The Iraq Syndrome,” in Foreign Affairs; and the book Taken by Storm: The Media, Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Gulf War.


Keywords: war, research chat

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