America exhaled Wednesday, relieved that the United States has avoided military involvement in Syria at least temporarily.
The relief – the opposite of the rally-round-the-flag emotion common to such moments – suggested that the country is entering a new post-Cold War, post-9/11 era, reluctant if not openly hostile to armed intervention in faraway lands.
Even while he asked Congress to delay a vote on airstrikes, President Barack Obama tried this week to argue that it’s crucial, that allowing Syria to go unpunished for the alleged use of chemical weapons would invite aggression, hurt allies such as Israel and Turkey, and embolden rogue nations such as Iran. Yet he did little to reverse the trend against intervention, offering no new argument for it and balancing his call for strikes with expressions of his own reluctance.
“Several people wrote to me, ‘We should not be the world’s policeman.’ I agree,” he said in an address to the nation Tuesday night that likely did little to win support for possible airstrikes.
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“I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them,” he said. “Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan. And I know Americans want all of us in Washington, especially me, to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home: putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class.”
“International order is not maintained by some global police force, which only exists in a liberal fantasy,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, seeking to portray past support for interventionism as ideological and ignoring conservative support for military missions in Grenada, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, all under Republican presidents.
The broad reluctance to strike now is a clear shift in the American mood. The public has rallied around military missions in recent years, at least initially, and congressional votes have been wrenching but often not close. Such votes have responded quickly to attacks, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist incidents, or to presidents who built momentum by crafting coalitions and carefully explaining American interests, as George W. Bush did in 2002 as he prepared to strike Iraq.
Any hint of isolationism was largely buried in the ruins of Pearl Harbor 72 years ago, rekindled only periodically after such disastrous moves as the Vietnam War and the intervention in Somalia, which led to an attack on U.S. forces dramatized in the book “Black Hawk Down.” Still, since World War II, it’s been largely understood that the nation had an obligation to keep the world safe and to stand up to rogue nations and madmen.
At first, it appeared that Obama’s bid to launch a limited military strike against Syria neatly fit the pattern. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime allegedly used chemical weapons on civilians outside Damascus on Aug. 21. Obama was ready to act.
The Syria mission, though, quickly proved too murky. Obama realized that the public was weary of wars after drawn-out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and confused about who was fighting whom in Syria. Politicians from the left and right, now adept at using social media as a megaphone to make themselves heard, protested.
Constituents also balked. By 48-38 percent, Americans don’t think the U.S. has an obligation to punish regimes that use chemical weapons, according to a National Journal Congressional Connection poll taken last Thursday through Sunday. A McClatchy-Marist poll taken Saturday and Sunday found that while a majority saw Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons as a threat to America, 58 percent opposed airstrikes. The same poll found that just 38 percent approved of the way Obama was handling foreign policy, the lowest of his presidency.
If the country was skeptical of the president’s pitch for support for airstrikes, it likely welcomed his request to put off a vote while he explores a possible diplomatic solution.
“The bottom line is we’re all going to try to work together. There is hope but not yet trust in what the Russians are doing,” said Senate Democratic policy committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York. A few members of Congress made speeches Wednesday to empty chambers, and by midafternoon the Senate had shifted into an energy debate.
“A negative vote would make it less likely we’ll be able to get Russia and Syria to get rid of these weapons,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.
The notion of a vote to authorize a military strike remains tempting, but its current value is more as a threat. “It is that prospect that has focused the minds of Russia and Syria,” said Levin.
Private talks among senators from both parties continued Wednesday, aimed at some kind of legislation that would OK a strike but only after specific diplomatic steps have been exhausted.
It’s a new world where muscle gets less support, and Obama is struggling to cope. When he met Tuesday with Senate Republicans before the address, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., noticed that the president seemed different. He often appears more casual and confident, but this time, Heller said, Obama sat with his hands crossed. “I’ve never seen that,” Heller said.
Obama’s message, said Heller, was clear. “He said, basically, give him room,” the senator said. “That’s all he asked.”
Protesters outside the White House during President Obama's speech