Let’s go slow in our approach to Syria

As Congress approaches the nine-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it is stunning to hear Republicans on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail calling for military intervention in another Middle Eastern country.

This time the country is Syria. And the reasons for military action there sound eerily similar to the ones used by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war.

To review: We have a brutal Middle Eastern dictator who has committed egregious human rights violations. He might have weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism. At the United Nations, we have the United States leading the charge for an international coalition to stop him.

The only new wrinkle to the story is that in 2012 an imminent presidential election ramps up the pressure. Every contender is making a show of pounding his chest as he openly calls for regime change.

Adding to this combustible mix is the imminent threat of Israel launching attacks on Iran to halt its development of nuclear weapons. The Iranians have a large role in Syria as financial backers of the regime. Syria has been Iran’s funnel for support to Israel’s enemies in Hezbollah and Hamas.

But haven’t we seen this movie before?

Replace “Syria” and “Bashar al-Asaad” with “Iraq” and “Sadaam Hussein” and the media coverage is nearly identical to the coverage leading up to the Iraq war nine years ago. And recent successful military efforts in Libya have apparently wiped away memories of Iraq and Afghanistan. The political class in Washington seems confident in taking military action.

The American public, however, has yet to be convinced. A Feb. 28 Rasmussen poll found only 19 percent support for direct U.S. involvement in Syria. And a recent Pew poll showed 75 percent of the public wants the United States to get out of Afghanistan.

The only place the American public is willing to put boots on the ground is in Iran. Given U.S. ties to Israel — highlighted again this week by the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — 58 percent of the American public is willing to use military force against Iran to halt its acquisition of nuclear weapons, according to the Pew poll.

But on Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is calling for U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have joined McCain in calling for the United States to immediately provide weapons, intelligence, money and supplies to the rebels — as long as they are not tied to Al Qaeda.

“What is needed urgently are tangible actions by the community of responsible nations to ensure that the Syrian people have the means to protect themselves against their attackers,” the three senators wrote.

“If the community of responsible nations is to assist the Syrian people in bringing Assad’s violent rule to an end, there can be no substitute for vigorous American leadership.”

On the GOP primary campaign trail, the three front-runners — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — are also calling for arming the Syrian rebels.

At a congressional hearing last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad could be categorized as an international war criminal for his actions. She seemed to be taking the first step to galvanize an international alliance to intervene in Syria.

But for the moment, the United Nations is not acting. And NATO has made it clear that it will play no role in an intervention in Syria — unlike Libya or Iraq. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last month that any intervention by Western countries is not likely to help solve the crisis.

“We haven’t had any discussions in NATO about a NATO role in Syria, and I don’t envision such a role for the alliance,” Rasmussen said. “Syria is ethnically, politically, religiously much more complicated than Libya. And I think a regional solution would be the right way forward with strong engagement by the Arab League.”

The State Department is also looking to Arab nations for help with Syria, which reportedly has an extensive chemical weapons program and biological weapons.

The United States has warned Syria’s neighbors such as Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia about weapons of mass destruction coming across their borders from Syria as a result of the turmoil. The United States is offering assistance to halt that potential problem, possibly in exchange for those countries helping the Syrian rebels.

It has been less than three months since the last U.S. troops left Iraq. With nearly 4,500 U.S. troops killed and more than 33,000 wounded, the lessons of the Iraq war must not be forgotten.

As tragic as the situation in Syria is, the consequences of U.S. intervention will be great. It could be setting off a much-wider war because of Syria’s ties to Iran.

We owe it to those men and women who served honorably in Iraq to be cautious.

Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July. This column originally appeared on TheHill.com.