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A Public Ready to Act Against Genocide, in Syria and Beyond

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After interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, conventional wisdom has it that our country is turning inward. But with dramatic global events that often unfold on the Internet, the public seems to have a heightened awareness of the risk of genocide and other kinds of mass atrocities -- and want our leaders to act.

A new poll we worked on together suggests that Americans in fact care very much about preventing genocide in other countries, want our government to be actively engaged in stopping it and are willing to employ military force under certain conditions.

The findings emerge from a random telephone poll of 1,000 Americans conducted by Penn, Schoen, and Berland for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We wanted to gauge how Americans think about the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities, an oft-neglected element of our foreign policy agenda.

At its core, our new poll shows that Americans are both idealistic and realistic when it comes to preventing genocide.

Americans believe genocide is a clear threat today and that we can do something about it: More than 90 percent of the people we polled say they believe that genocide is not just a phenomenon of the past and could occur today, and two thirds believe it is preventable. They do not see such atrocities just as part of ancient feuding between peoples that we cannot do anything about -- that kind of thinking has precluded effective action in the past. They see genocide as a tool used by political leaders to accomplish political goals.

Americans have a fairly sophisticated understanding of what genocide is and have broad knowledge of the most egregious past cases, such as the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. Almost one in two Americans describes genocide, correctly, as the destruction of a racial, national, religious and ethnic group.

Americans may lack a detailed knowledge of foreign policy issues, but they are tuned into potential genocides and mass killings, especially the younger generation.

Americans want their government to do something about preventing genocide. A strong proportion -- 69 percent -- believes the United States should prevent or stop mass atrocities from occurring in another part of the world. Substantial majorities also said they think the United States should have taken military action in cases such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

But on a range of questions, our poll suggests that Americans place important limits on the nature and scope of our engagement in current cases. They do not see the United States as the country most responsible for preventing or stopping mass atrocities, but rather look to international bodies such as the United Nations or NATO.

We asked what Americans think we should do in both Syria and Sudan. On both conflicts, strong majorities favor non-military tactics, such as assisting refugees or freezing trade (steps already being taken by the United States), but they also favor the use of military force. In both countries, a majority of those polled would be willing to send ground forces as part of an international force.

The public was clear -- more education to prevent genocide from developing and more use of force, as part of a coalition, when it does occur.

There's little doubt the United States and other countries are taking this the problem more seriously, even if they don't always succeed in stopping mass atrocities. International tribunals and courts have been established to try perpetrators. Every country has subscribed to the notion that the international community has a "responsibility to protect" civilians from genocide and other forms of mass slaughter. Our government agencies -- and some in other countries -- are adopting reforms aimed at improving their capacity to identify those countries at risk of genocide and do something about it before violence commences.

Political will continues to be a big issue. In the past, U.S. presidents often turned their back on mass killings because they saw a lack of public support. But our poll suggest this calculus may be changing and that leaders who fail to act may be the ones who pay a political price.

Mark Penn has served as a pollster to President and Hillary Clinton and as CEO of Burson Marsteller and Penn, Schoen and Berland. Mike Abramowitz is director of the genocide prevention program at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Details of the new poll can be found at http://psbresearch.com/endinggenocide