WASHINGTON - Sen. Dianne Feinstein made headlines recently by demanding a forceful U.S. response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its population.
Less noticed was that the California Democrat wasn’t urging deeper military involvement or other dramatic steps, but only a new push for action by the United Nations Security Council — which has already rejected Western-backed resolutions on Syria three times.
In this cautious approach, Feinstein, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not alone. Several senior lawmakers have been clamoring for stronger U.S. leadership yet not taking the political risk of calling for any fundamental change in the current course.
Distressed by the suffering in Syria, but wary of another Mideast war, some lawmakers are speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, ranking GOP member of Senate Armed Services Committee, has condemned President Obama for “inaction” but cautions against risky military steps — and he has not outlined a specific alternative.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called for the administration to “green light” allies to arm moderate rebel groups, a step the White House took months ago.
“It’s striking how many people are making vehement calls for action that, below the surface, don’t look like much,” said Christopher Preble, foreign policy director at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Although “nobody in Washington wants to appear to be doing nothing,” he said, they understand the options are poor.
The Pentagon has warned the lawmakers that arms supplied to the rebels could fall into the hands of extremist fighters. And destroying Syria’s extensive air defenses to create a “no-fly” zone to protect rebels and civilians is a big task that could escalate the war without fully protecting civilians or tipping the balance against the government in Damascus.
Yet no politician in Washington wants to appear unsympathetic to Syrian suffering, indifferent to the need for strong U.S. leadership or tepid in support of Israel, an ally threatened by the civil war in its neighboring country.
In a city with a bias for action, it is the advocates of military involvement, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as pro-intervention commentators and think-tank experts who have been the focus of most public attention. Yet lawmakers also recognize that the public remains stubbornly against U.S. military involvement by about 2 to 1, even as the Syrian death toll, estimated to be more than 70,000, mounts.
In this setting, the pressure on Obama from the U.S. public is to avoid U.S. involvement in war in a Muslim country for the fourth time in a decade. But demands that he find a solution, usually unspecified, are growing.
“There’s a pincer movement from left and right that’s squeezing Obama,” said Jim Manley, former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Right now it’s on the level of rhetoric versus demands for concrete action, because there’s no good answers. But people are looking to him for the solution.”