WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama made the case Tuesday night for possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, he addressed a public hardened by the lessons of past wars, murky on the details of the current crisis and fearful of what another conflict abroad would mean for America.
The Associated Press spoke with a sampling of viewers from around the country to gauge whether the president succeeded in nudging the opinion needle in favor of action, how rumblings of a diplomatic solution brokered by Russia are being received and what it would take to build greater support for a strike.
Few Americans considered Syria a likely target for U.S. intervention until the Obama administration started preparing two weeks ago for a military response to the desert nation government’s use of deadly chemical weapons on its people. While Obama worked hard to explain “why it matters and where we go from here,” many who tuned into his White House address said he faced a daunting – if impossible – job.
“It was a coherent speech about a convoluted problem,” Don Merry, 68, a retired middle-school math teacher from Denver, who watched the speech at McP’s Irish Pub, a popular hangout for active-duty and retired military in Coronado, Calif. “He didn’t score any points with me.”
Mike Corrao, a pharmaceutical drug rep from Milwaukee, said Obama’s speech left him confused about the next steps. He said he was conflicted by the overall situation — upset about the use of chemical weapons, but unable to fathom how a limited U.S. missile strike would accomplish anything meaningful.
“I’m against any attack, but if you’re going to do it, the purpose should be to punish or disarm” Syria’s president, Corrao, 35, said. “Even in his stated goals, he used the word ‘deter.’ If you’re going to do a strike, make it mean something.”
BIG PULPIT, NO BULLYING:
In Atlanta, the Braves game was put on mute as patrons of Manuel’s Tavern turned toward a television broadcasting Obama’s speech. Some who listened said that while the president made a compelling argument, they were interested in seeing how Russian diplomacy efforts might pan out.
Wynne Patterson, a 38-year-old speech pathologist, said the images of children lying dead on cold hospital floors and Obama’s assurance that any engagement in Syria would be precise and short-lived were not enough to persuade her there would not be unintended consequences from more U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
“It just seems like every time we like stick our toe in those waters it’s protracted and messy and, you know, whatever outcome we think we wanted isn’t usually the outcome that happens,” Patterson said, adding that the situation reminded her of the discussions surrounding Afghanistan and Iraq a decade ago.
One part of the president’s speech that captured the attention of Justin Bryant, a tourist visiting Juneau, Alaska on a cruise, was Obama’s promise not to put any U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. Bryant, who is from Atlanta and unaffiliated with a political party, said he found an option short of “completely forceful” appealing.
“You can make a statement without being harmful,” he said of Obama’s proposed strategy.
DOUBTING THE BENEFIT:
Despite the president’s efforts to persuade the American people they have a vested interest in Syria, that country’s problems nonetheless struck some viewers as remote and intractable.
“We can’t take care of poverty in West Virginia right now. We can’t take care of North America as a continent,” elementary school teacher Elizabeth Hall, 38, said after watching Obama’s remarks at a New Orleans restaurant. “The issues that are going on in that area, that sect of the world, they were there way before we were a country. They will continue to be there. They’ll be there after.”
Matt Harr, a 38-year-old information technology professional in Atlanta, said he thinks the potential for additional casualties in Syria is unavoidable with or without an American military strike, without or without chemical weapons.
“A lot of people are going to end up getting slaughtered either way, it just depends on the means. A lot of horrible things happened before,” Harr said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to shell people and kill them in all kinds of conventional ways.”
IF NOT NOW, WHEN?
As the president spoke, three former Marines who served in Afghanistan were at McP’s in Coronado, holding their annual gathering to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Each year they meet in a different city — last year in Baltimore, this year in San Diego and next year in Omaha, Neb.
Brian Tammaro, a Republican who left the Marines as a gunnery sergeant, said it was “disgusting” that major powers haven’t intervened militarily in Syria already. But he is skeptical about both the value of limited airstrikes on Syria’s chemical weapon supply and Obama’s commitment not to put U.S. soldiers on the ground.
“You can’t say no ground troops, you can’t predict what’s going to happen (once airstrikes are launched),” said Tammaro, 41, of Washington, D.C.
John Ellis, a Republican who retired as a master sergeant, said that while a failure to respond militarily would be an admission of weakness for the U.S., it’s almost too late now.
“The whole region is so unstable,” said Ellis, 47, of Sacramento, Calif. “There are no good answers. It’s so sad.”
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