Everywhere she goes these days, Nancy Pelosi hears the skepticism. It rains down on her at fundraisers from Boston to Albuquerque, among her fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill and back home in San Francisco, where the antiwar spirit of the 1960s still blankets the city like the summer fog. "I don't run into a lot of people who say, 'Bomb Assad,'" the House minority leader says of the military campaign President Obama has prepared against the Syrian regime. "Certainly plenty have said, 'No. Thumbs down, thumbs down, thumbs down.'"
Pelosi says she even found herself surprised on Labor Day by her seventh grandchild, who confronted her with a question. "Yes on the war on Syria, or no on the war on Syria?" asked Thomas Vos, 5, as Pelosi bade farewell to catch a plane for another meeting at the White House on the U.S. response to Syria's use of chemical weapons. When politicians cite the strategic advice of their grandchildren, it typically signals a Hobson's choice. This time was no different. "I think no war," the boy told her.
The conversation that followed between Thomas and the House Democratic leader was as good a place to start as any, an opening volley in the national debate Obama has asked the country to undertake around dinner tables and watercoolers, in committee rooms and on the floor of the U.S. Congress. At issue are elemental questions about what kind of global role the U.S. will play in the coming decade and what behaviors by other nations are unacceptable. There are no easy answers. All options come with incalculable risks.
Convincing evidence indicates that a Syrian dictator, fearing for his regime's survival, has turned chemical weapons on his people, killing more than a thousand so far, in violation of nearly century-old international norms. Now the American people, by way of their elected leaders, must decide: Should their military be in the business of punishing with missile strikes those who use weapons of mass destruction half a world away? Even if intervention fails to curb the practice--or, worse, further destabilizes the region? "If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?" the President asked on Aug. 31. "To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?"
For Pelosi, who in 2007 became the first female Speaker of the House by campaigning against the last war in the Middle East over weapons of mass destruction, the answer is to strike. She is doing all she can to persuade her colleagues to go along. "President Obama did not draw a red line. That was drawn by humanity decades ago," Pelosi told TIME hours after speaking at the White House on Sept. 3 in favor of military action. "Who are we as a country? You know, we are the superpower."
But in a nation weary of war, this view has been fading. A Pew Poll conducted over Labor Day weekend found that fewer than 1 in 3 Americans, including only 29% of Democrats, support air strikes against Syria. Republican voters are actually more likely to support the President, at 35%, though many Republican lawmakers feel differently.