Events in Syria require Obama to show abundance of caution

There are some rising voices in Congress calling for greater U.S. involvement in supporting rebel forces in Syria. Thus far, President Barack Obama has not been moved by those voices, and we would suggest that his more cautious course has been the correct one.

And, according to a New York Times poll last month, 62 percent of Americans say the United States has no responsibility to do something about the violence in Syria. A Gallup poll released just yesterday shows even more Americans — 68 percent — saying the U.S. military should not attempt to end the conflict in Syria if diplomatic efforts fail.

The situation in Syria today is as complicated as any in the Middle East, and the Middle East has been a bubbling cauldron of conflicts, wars and tribal, ethnic and religious enmities for as long as anyone alive today can remember.

A reluctance by the American public to support engaging in yet another conflict can be understood as a combination of factors. Six years after the bubble burst, the economy has rebounded unevenly, with Wall Street doing well, but middle-class Americans are still feeling the pinch. At a time when government jobs and services are being cut at home, it’s difficult to justify higher expenditures abroad. The war in Afghanistan, now the longest in U.S. history, and the Iraq conflict have left America war- weary, and with many wondering what was gained for the blood spilled and treasure spent.

Who do you trust?

Saber rattling by Iran and North Korea, avowed enemies of the United States, are more worrisome to Americans than a civil war in Syria. And picking sides in Syria is not as easy as it seems. To be sure, Syrian President Bashar Assad is a ruthless and murdering tyrant, but whom among his opponents can the United States bank on? Do we want to put thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which is what we would need to even the fight, in the hands of people who could some day use those weapons against U.S. forces — or the forces of allies, such as Israel?

Perhaps America today is going back to its isolationist roots, which it has done from time to time. It is worth remembering that the United States had to be dragged into World Wars I and II.

On the other hand, the U.S. entered Korea as part of a United Nations action, but was the driving force behind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, albeit with allies in both instances. The U.S. took up the fight against Communism in Vietnam after the French abandoned it.

In 1983, we pulled out of Lebanon rather than lose more than the 241 Marines and soldiers lost in the Beirut bombing, but we invaded Grenada that same week, citing the need to rescue American medical students there.

Changing times

Without listing every foreign war or excursion, the point should be clear: it is not necessary for the United States to answer every foreign crisis or indignity with armed force, or even by arming other forces on the ground. Times change, and how the nation reacts to international challenges changes as well.

We suffered our highest losses by far in World War II, but also had the most positive outcome — defeating Hitler and the Axis powers, developing alliances that continue through today and stabilizing both Europe and the Pacific Rim.

Americans may be sensing that it’s time to reinvigorate that old-fashioned reticence about entering a war before it’s clearly necessary and in the nation’s best interest.

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