By David Ignatius
Talking with members of Congress at a gathering here last week was an education in the public’s wariness of new foreign entanglements – especially in Syria. It was a reminder that the post-Iraq era is only beginning, and that it may limit America’s ability to exercise power for the next few years.
The great advantage (and on occasion, disadvantage) of the House of Representatives is that its members are so close to their constituents. Most of them spend every nearly weekend back home in their districts. So they know what the public is thinking in a personal way that’s sometimes missing in Washington foreign-policy debates.
The discussion here arose during an off-the-record conference organized by a Washington group. One of the topics was possible U.S. involvement in Syria, and it provoked an intense conversation. Many members from both parties made clear how uneasy they are about new U.S. adventures in this part of the world.
“I can’t adequately describe how unwilling the American people are to get involved in another war in the Middle East,” said one congressman.
The skeptical mood was underlined by one member who quoted former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as saying: “The problem is that you Americans think every problem has a solution.” Well, not anymore – not after Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama recognizes the national war fatigue and made it a subtle centerpiece of his bid for re-election. He was emphatic about bringing troops home from Afghanistan and doing nation-building at home, rather than abroad.
In his caution on Syria, Obama has been reading the public mood correctly. Personally, I hope the president will accept the recommendation of some of his advisers and provide training and other limited military assistance for the Syrian rebels. But he would do so without a solid base of public support, a bad way to begin any new commitment. If Obama does decide to get more involved, he will need to bring the country along with him.
The big question is whether America’s war weariness will undermine Obama’s pledge to use military force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The House members who attended the conference seemed less skeptical about military options for Iran than for Syria. That’s partly because the Iranian threat is more obvious toward both the U.S. and Israel.
Visiting this sprawling city was a reminder of the mysterious process through which empires wax and wane. Turkey’s neo-imperial prospects seem to be rising for the first time in a century, with Turkish leaders talking about a new Ottoman hegemony in the region. America’s cloak of leadership, by contrast, seems a bit faded.
One Arab politician cautioned the group: “American credibility is being doubted in this part of the world.” What the members of Congress needed to remember, he said, was that “America remains indispensable.” But when the members are back home talking to constituents on weekends, this traditional invocation of global U.S. leadership is not what they’re hearing.
DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.