(CNN)Nearly six in 10 Americans approve of President Donald Trump’s decision to strike at a Syrian air base from which chemical attacks were launched last week, according to a new CBS News national poll.
But that’s where consensus — or even the appearance of consensus — ends. When prompted with four competing options about what the United States should do next, none of the quartet get more than 30 percent support from the public.
Three in 10 say that they want airstrikes but no ground troops as a follow-up measure to last week’s missile launches. Twenty-six percent want only diplomatic talks, while 18 percent favor the use of ground troops and 15 percent want no more US involvement at all.
That’s a muddle if ever I’ve seen one. Digging into the numbers among self-identified partisans doesn’t make it that much easier either. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans want more strikes without ground troops while another 34 percent favor the use of troops. A majority of independents favor either airstrikes without ground troops (30 percent) or diplomacy only (26 percent). Four in 10 Democrats prefer diplomacy alone.
Point being: For a politician who makes no secret of his affection for polls, Trump is facing a question about what’s next in Syria that’s very difficult, politically speaking, not to mention from a policy perspective.
The public liked the initial strike, likely due to the fact it was both limited and in response to a chemical attack that was roundly condemned as morally wrong.
But what happens next is a far harder question to answer. Even within Trump’s own foreign policy inner circle, there is something of a divide. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley appears to have staked out a more hawkish position calling for the necessity of regime change in Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been more measured, insisting that last week’s targeted strike doesn’t change the underlying priorities of the Trump administration, which puts battling ISIS front and center.
It’s worth noting that the American public has grown increasingly resistant to aggressive military actions in foreign countries following the latest war in Iraq. As recently as 2013, almost seven in 10 Americans in a Gallup poll opposed the use of military force to end the civil war in Syria — assuming diplomatic efforts failed.
It’s not clear how much Trump’s election has changed that calculus, if at all. Remember that Trump ran as someone who was hesitant to involve the US in the business of other countries.
His position, at least as it related to Syria, was changed by the images he was shown in the wake of the chemical attack last week. But it’s not clear if Trump’s change of heart relates to all foreign policy or was simply a one-off in regard to Syria.
In short: The decision to strike Syria last week was, from a politics and policy perspective, the easy part. The tougher question to answer — and the one Trump seems not to have a good answer to yet — is “What’s next?”