The Syrian-Israeli negotiations have faltered, with the talks indefinitely suspended. Still, should the Syrians relent and agree to return to the table, one great question hangs over the talks: What commitments of money and troops will the Clinton administration take on?
The amount of money under discussion seems to grow with the telling. In the mid-1990s and as recently as last November, the bill to be presented to the American taxpayer was routinely said to be $10 billion. By December, the amount commonly bruited about had reached $17-18 billion. In January, the numbers leaped up to $65-70 billion, and some even talked about $100 billion.
Although this sum of money would be paid out over many years, it still represents a staggeringly large sum of money. And while most of these funds would go to Israel — mostly to help it relocate bases and improve its arsenal to compensate for handing over the Golan Heights — a not insignificant portion will go to Syria, to help that country out of its economic doldrums and remedy its military weakness.
What do Americans think about the prospect of sending money to Syria? It is, after all, a charter member of the list of states that support terrorism and also a longtime member of the exclusive club of states winking at drug-trafficking. Americans don't like the prospect one bit, and they are very consistent in their opinion.
By a nearly exact 3-to-1 margin, a national sample of 1,000 American voters replied to a poll commissioned by the Middle East Forum (and conducted on Jan. 13 by the firm of John McLaughlin and Associates) that it does not want to help strengthen the Syrian economy. To be precise, with a margin of error of 3.1 percent, the percentage was 63.8 against, 21.2 in favor, with the remainder not knowing or not replying. By an almost 4-to-1 margin (66.5 percent versus 16.9 percent), the sample rejects the idea of funding the Syrian military.
The prospect of sending American soldiers to the Golan Heights to serve as a peacekeeping force between Syria and Israel pleases voters no better. Asked what they think of this idea, again by a nearly precise 3-to-1 margin (64 percent against, 21.2 percent in favor), the respondents nix this idea.
Although this does represent an emphatic rejection, it does bear noting that there has been slight movement in favor of using American troops abroad since the last time the Forum asked this same question, with exactly the same wording, on Election Day in November 1994. Then, the sentiment against sending American troops ran 64.3 percent against and 17.9 percent in favor.
This slight increase in approval might be due to the success of the American mission last year against Serbia, when high-tech meant winning a war without taking casualties.
Further questioning reveals a widespread reluctance to send money to Syria so long as its government behaves in unacceptable ways. By the same large margins, our sample group said the regime must take specific steps before the U.S. Congress authorizes any financial aid. Do troops occupying the neighboring country of Lebanon have to pull out first? Yes, it replies by nearly 4-to-1 (the percentage is 65.5 to 16.6). Does it have to expel terrorist groups first? Yes, comes the reply by over 4-to-1 (68.2 percent to 16.9). How about ending its anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic incitement in the state-controlled media and textbooks? Again, the reply is resoundingly positive, by over 3-to-1 (64.8 percent to 19.5).
The consistency of these figures — the skeptical position ranges in a tight range between 63.8 and 68.2 percent — is further confirmed by looking at the details; whether one looks at geography, age, ideology, income, gender, and race, the sentiments are surprisingly uniform and across-the-board.
This wide consensus suggests two main points. First, the Clinton administration is treading on thin ice if it assumes a congressional willingness to subsidize the totalitarian rulers in Damascus. Second, Israel's leadership should tread warily about pushing for the funding of Syria when this runs against the wishes of two-thirds of Americans. Such a move could well have counterproductive consequences in the long term for the Jewish state.