ISTANBUL — 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, no matter how noble-sounding the cause.
“I can’t adequately describe how unwilling the American people are to get involved in another war in the Middle East,” said one congressman. “We’re almost unable to respond,” given what the U.S. has spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, said another. He described intervention proposals as “half-baked,” and argued that “the last thing we need is something ineffective.” A third member summed up the public mood this way: “We are not just war-weary, we are war-wary.”
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.
Both Republicans and Democrats expressed caution about venturing onto Syria’s slippery slope. “This is not a tragedy of our making,” warned one House veteran. He argued that countries in the region need to decide what they want. “Absent that consensus, you can’t act.” This longtime member noted that President Obama won’t be able to do much in Syria without support from Democrats: “You can’t be a war president without having a war party.”
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. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, opened the general-election campaign with hawkish rhetoric, but by the last debate he had so trimmed his foreign-policy positions that they were nearly identical to Obama’s.
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 Iranians seem convinced that, given the public mood, Obama is bluffing. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told me pointedly in an interview last September that America was tired of the “back-breaking expenses” of foreign wars. “Will the people of the U.S. accept meddling and intervention in the affairs of others?” he mused. “I don’t believe so.”
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. But given the current public mood, Obama will have to work carefully to build support for any U.S. military action against Iran — convincing people that it’s a legal and necessary use of American power.
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 is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.