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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn our focus now to the deadly civil war in Syria. The American role there has been limited. The U.S. has delivered humanitarian aid and given non-lethal supplies to the rebels. This could change with indications that chemical weapons may have been used in the conflict. Now, polls show Americans are still not paying close attention to the civil war, but there is a reluctance to intervene, a byproduct of the experience in Iraq. President Obama says he's weighing his options. Whatever he decides, he'll have to make a case to the American public. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There are voices in Washington trying to ratchet up the pressure on the White House to do more on Syria. Most prominent are U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Here's McCain on NBC's "Meet the Press" this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We have said that they need a no-fly zone, which could be obtained without using U.S.-manned aircraft. We could use Patriot batteries and cruise missiles to take out their air and to supply the resistance with weapons.

GONYEA: But such calls are in the minority, and the White House is resisting them. Weeks ago, Obama warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line. Now that that line has apparently been crossed, the president's tone has not changed. He's signaling to the public that while new options may be on the table, deliberations are still underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And when I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts. That's what the American people would expect.

GONYEA: Expectations aside - for now, at least - Americans are not paying close attention to Syria, says Michael Dimock of Pew Research.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Even with news recently about the possible use of chemical weapons, there's been no real surge of public interest in the situation. We're finding fewer than one in five telling us they're following it very closely, and that's been about the level of interest for the past two years now.

GONYEA: That low level of interest means it's somewhat of a blank slate in terms of defining how Americans look at the situation. It creates an opportunity for the White House. Jeremy Rosner was on the National Security Council during the Clinton years.

JEREMY ROSNER: There's a lot of research and literature over the decades that shows that the way in which a conflict is described has a big bearing on whether the public will support U.S. military intervention there.

GONYEA: Rosner offers an example.

ROSNER: If it's described mostly as an effort to contain violent behavior by a regime, that tends to draw much more support than for a venture which is meant to create internal change within the country.

GONYEA: That gets to the lessons of Iraq: a war-weariness among the public, the difficulty of that mission and its controversial beginnings and the claims of weapons of mass destruction that were never found. Pew's Michael Dimock says the public gave President Bush a lot of leeway on limited evidence after the 9-11 attacks on U.S. soil.

DIMOCK: In the current environment, the public is a lot more cautious and not as eager to take bold actions on limited information.

GONYEA: They'll want to know what exactly U.S. involvement would look like. If not boots on the ground - which seems extremely unlikely in Syria - then what the mission? What are the goals? What is the exit strategy? Duke University's Peter Feaver, who was on President Bush's National Security Council during the Iraq War, says that rather than addressing those questions, he thinks President Obama is preparing the public for little or no intervention. That may suit the public now...

PETER FEAVER: But there's another lesson from public opinion in American foreign policy, and that is the public punishes failure, regardless of whether they supported the policy initially.

GONYEA: And while the president meets with national security, military and diplomatic advisers to decide what to do, know too that getting the American public on board is important, and will get due consideration, as well. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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