DES MOINES, Iowa -- The specter of U.S. military action against Syria and further intervention in the Muslim world is generating troubled and conflicting emotions throughout America.
People cite misgivings about their country’s role as “world policeman.” They express moral outrage at atrocities in a faraway nation, tempered by dismay about trying to decide who’s good and who’s bad in a sectarian slaughter. There’s a deep ambivalence about how to use American military power for good without committing the United States to another intractable war.
Those sentiments are reflected in a series of interviews conducted Friday by The Associated Press across the country and borne out in recent polling.
In town after town, Americans weary of war after a dozen years of it are expressing unease, concern, fear and often resignation.
Some adamantly oppose any U.S. action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, even though the Obama administration says he used chemical weapons to kill 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
Most are struggling to sort out conflicting hopes and anxieties. Painful lessons from Vietnam and Iraq color the conversations. Pride in America’s strength and morality often seem pitted against fears of arrogance that can lead to conflicts much easier to start than to finish.
“I think he has to do something,” Ralph Whitney of Groton, Conn., said of Obama, even if it means “stirring up a hornet’s nest.”
Opinion polls quantify the serious reservations.
An NBC News survey suggests that the Assad government’s alleged use of chemical weapons has not persuaded more people in the U.S. to support military intervention. Half of those surveyed said the U.S. should not take military action, while 42 percent said the U.S. should.
Only 1 in 5 said military action is in the U.S. national interest.
The poll was conducted Wednesday and Thursday, before the administration’s release Friday of an unclassified intelligence assessment that cited “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out the attack.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll from December showed 63 percent in favor of U.S. military involvement if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people.
The NBC poll found scant support for arming Syrian rebels. About one-fourth of those questioned favor U.S. military action to help stop the killing of Syrian civilians, while just 6 percent prefer arming the rebels.
Americans with firsthand knowledge of Syrian refugees’ plight talked in Des Moines about their wariness of U.S. military intervention.
“The pain and the despair people have experienced, and the loss of life, it’s created a situation where people don’t even know who they are anymore,” Kate Altmaier, a 30-year-old administrative assistant, said in between sips of coffee outside a cafe.
Altmaier had just returned from the Mideast. In Lebanon, she saw the struggles of those refugees.
Anyone who thinks America’s proper response is easy or obvious, she said, is misguided.
“Fighting evil with more darkness,” said Altmaier, a self-described born-again Christian, is not the answer. “If someone has a good answer, I’ll say they don’t understand it. Even people who know a lot about it and have spent so much time there, it’s a spider web.”
Nearby, Elizabeth Jack was rocking her 5-month-old after the weekly story hour at the city’s downtown public library. A family of Syrian immigrants lives in her neighborhood, she said, and the kids in the two households play together.
The Syrian parents fear for relatives still in the Middle East. “I know they are worried, and want someone to help,” Jack said.
Despite her sympathies, Jack opposes a U.S. strike.
“We’re stretched so thin,” she said. “We are policing the world.”
She said her views sometimes create awkwardness with her Syrian neighbors.
Jack said she feels helpless to change America’s military role in the region. “I do feel like it’s just the way it’s going to be,” she said.
Jimmy Tynes, 64, of Hattiesburg, Miss., said his initial thought on airstrikes against Syria was, “I’m against it. I just don’t know what we’d be doing over there.”
But as he spoke longer during a visit to Atlanta, Tynes equivocated.
“Of course, none of us can see everything that the president is looking at,” he said. “If that’s his decision, I’ll support him.”
Tynes, who served in the Army Reserves in the Vietnam War era, warned against portraying Syria’s rebels as heroes. “It’s our enemies on both sides over there,” he said.
Jennifer McConkley, 45, shared coffee in Des Moines with Altmaier, a co-worker. She also shares Altmaier’s ambivalence about military action in Syria.
McConkey, who voted for Obama last year, said she was troubled by Obama’s declaration that Syria’s government would be crossing a “red line” if it used chemical weapons against its citizens. Still, she said, the United States has a moral role to stem such abuses.
“I just hate for us to have to go that far,” McConkey said. “That’s not going to solve the issue. But we have to take some kind of stand and send a clear a message about what we’ll tolerate.”
She worries about her son Alex, 11, and the possibility he may be called someday to serve in the Middle East, where a U.S. military role seems likely for years.
“I hope for a time when we wouldn’t have to be there,” McConkey said. “But given the complex situation, we’ll probably always have some kind of presence there. At least within my lifetime.”
McConkey wasn’t the only person who mentioned Obama’s “red line” warning.
Retired Army veteran Lee Thompson of Atlanta said the president “offered all those references to a ‘red line.’ To do nothing now makes the United States look weak.”
Thompson, 71, urged Obama to avoid the ways America got involved in Vietnam and Iraq. “Anything we do must have a defined purpose,” he said. “Otherwise there’s no ‘win’ in this war, nothing to say we won and it’s time to come home.”
David Kabel of West Des Moines, Iowa, said Obama’s “red line” warning leaves him without a good option. “I bet he wishes he hadn’t said that,” said Kabel, 65.
Even a tightly defined intervention in Syria will be hard to control, he said. But he said he fears Obama will be viewed as weak if he doesn’t act.
That’s troubling, Kabel said, because “we’re already overextended. And the country at large is suffering from war fatigue.”
Dilemmas such as Syria inevitably divide couples.
Among them are Joann and Scott Johnson of Baldwin, N.Y., who vacationed this weekend along the Potomac River in suburban Virginia, just outside Washington.
Joann, 49, runs a children’s day care center. She said the United States “absolutely” must punish Assad.
“I just feel like the destruction he’s doing to his own people, to me, that’s a monster,” she said.
Her husband disagrees.
“Why can’t they take care of their own country and own problems?” said Scott Johnson, 51, who works in retail and delivers newspapers in the morning. “Why is it our problem?”
“We’re always getting the blame for being the peacemaker,” Johnson said. “That’s why other countries hate us so much.”
The issue creates a somewhat gentler divide between Ralph and Sally Whitney of Groton, Conn., who were in northern Virginia for a wedding. She thinks a military strike is a terrible idea; he thinks it’s probably inevitable.
“Don’t take us to war!” said Sally Whitney, a 58-year-old town clerk, as soon as the topic came up. “If we are invited to help a country, that would be it,” she said. “But we can’t go and police it.”
Ralph Whitney said Obama is virtually obligated to act because of his earlier warnings about chemical weapons use. But that doesn’t mean the 65-year-old engineer thinks it’s a good idea.
Syria “is a sovereign country,” he said, “and we have no right to interfere in a sovereign country.”
Time after time, Americans fretted about being the world’s moral enforcer.
“I’m sick and tired of America having to police everyone,” said Tristan Wright, 37, a banker from Alexandria, Va.
“We just got finished up with Iraq, and that was an utter waste,” Wright said as he sipped iced coffee on a warm day. “We have enough problems here,” he said, citing struggling school districts, Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy and high rates of U.S. poverty and homelessness.
“There is always going to be a new Syria,” Wright said.
During lunchtime at an outdoor market in downtown Los Angeles, George Carrillo and Henry Chase summarized Obama’s options.
Carrillo, manning a bakery stall whose proceeds help former gang members, said the president “has got to be strong, man, he’s our leader.”
Carrillo favors multiple airstrikes in Syria, saying such tactics helped stop ethnic warfare in Kosovo in 1999. “When you see little kids and families just right there all gassed up,” he said of Syria, “it’s heartbreaking. We’ve got to put it to a stop.”
In a separate interview, Chase, a 64-year-old financial sector employee eating lunch nearby, urged caution. Noting that thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed by nonchemical weapons, he said, “What’s the rush, because now there’s some unique way” of slaughtering people?
Chase worries that the White House hasn’t thought through actions that could drag Iran and even Israel into a wider conflict, or even lead to an attack on U.S. soil.
If Obama approves an airstrike, Chase said, “he ought to give his (Nobel) Peace Prize back” because hundreds or thousands of civilians would be killed.
Thomas reported from Alexandria, Va. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles, Charles Babington in Washington and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
U.S. government assessment: http://apne.ws/14etnyn
AP Interactive on Syria conflict: http://www.postandcourier.com/syria