Congress and the American people are exhaling Wednesday over Syria.
Lawmakers won’t have to vote anytime soon on a military strike, a vote few were eager to take. Their constituents, confused and skeptical about the Syria initiative, won’t see their sons and daughters sent on a murky mission.
The collective sigh of relief is the strongest signal yet that the nation may be entering a period of new isolationism, one where the public and its representatives have little taste for foreign conflicts.
President Barack Obama’s Tuesday-night speech did little to reverse the trend. He broke no new ground and offered no fresh logic. His tone vacillated between tough-talking commander-in-chief eager to teach a tyrant a stern lesson and the gentle leader ready to use diplomacy and reason to get out of a deep political mess.
Obama is struggling to adapt to this new skepticism over foreign involvement. He confronts a Congress unlikely to approve military action against Syria, and a nation overwhelmingly opposed.
He addressed a public, as well as the lawmakers, who were growing more wary and puzzled. Less than two weeks ago, Obama appeared ready to go into Syria. But on Aug. 31, sensing the public doubts, he asked Congress for approval. This week, as Congress returned from a summer recess and showed no enthusiasm for a strike, he pivoted again. Instead of a Tuesday speech once expected to launch a mission, the president turned lobbyist-in-chief.
He insisted his plan involved “modest effort and risk.” He patiently addressed widespread concerns about a broader conflict. His nod to working with Russia and the United Nations was a plea for time and understanding.
It’s what Congress wanted to hear. “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.
Obama still must adjust to this new, go-slow-and-maybe-don’t-go-at-all mood. Should he renew his effort to win support for a strike, he faces protests from the left and right that will not fade or be silent.
“I don’t have all the reasons why, but what I hear the most is that there’s no direct threat. There’s no upside. There’s no win. There’s no strategy. There’s no vision. There’s no trust. And the list goes on and on,” said Rep. Steve Palazzo, R-Miss.
Obama addressed the concerns of the left and right Tuesday night, and has bought more time to keep explaining. Congress is not expected to take any Syria votes or even debate the issue this week. Nor are leaders saying when, or even if, votes might occur.
After all, “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 will continue Wednesday, aimed at some kind of legislation that would OK a strike but only after specific diplomatic steps have been exhausted.
Obama knows he’s in a difficult political position. When he met Tuesday with Senate Republicans before the address, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, noticed 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.”
By David Lightman - McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)
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