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On Red Lines and Open Tables

When it comes to American foreign policy, we continue to get ourselves into no-win situations. The latest swamp is the Syrian Civil War and the appropriate (?) ethical (?) strategic (?) role the US should play as a result of seemingly incontrovertible evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, killing more than 1,000 people including 400 children. The video record of these atrocities includes some of the most frightening, heart wrenching scenes I have ever seen.

It is hard to believe, especially with the insipid denials of culpability that have come from Damascus, that this attack was not sanctioned at the highest levels of the Syrian government. Assad crossed President Obama’s “red line” as well as international “rules of war.” If this action goes without consequences, the administration argues, we all are threatened.

How, then, do we as a nation appropriately respond? We are weary of war, as both Secretary Kerry and the President affirm, and yet is it not incumbent upon us to be responsible global citizens? If the Security Council will not act, can we avoid the task of holding world leaders to standards of behavior that virtually all civilized nations agree upon? If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Domestically, it is right for the President to seek Congressional approval, although had he demanded greater urgency in holding the vote, there would be less negative reaction from our allies abroad. Keeping Congress accountable for acts of war (let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what this is) is a critical constitutional principle and its role in contemporary declarations (or not) of war has been significantly reduced in recent conflicts (see Libya). A clear-up-or-down vote by representatives can help the American people understand where our elected officials stand on this important issue, thereby strengthening our democracy.

Still, it is the President who will be the communicator-in-chief on this policy and who will ultimately be responsible for whatever course of action the US takes. It is a fine line between deliberative decision-making and appearing to be indecisive. There is a real tightrope to be walked and the President seems to be wobbling on that wire, making it essential that the President right his balance and…lead. His credibility and, by extension, the nation’s, is at stake.

The complexities of the issue are immense. Political dysfunction domestically, the rise of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist forces in the Syrian opposition, the balance of power in the Middle East, the impact of all this on Israel and, of course, there is the ever-present “eye towards Iran” and its nuclear program.

Few of us can pretend to know all the particulars that need to go into an informed decision about the nature of our response to these events. But, two things I lament—elements that our current predicament lay out in stark relief, both of which are central to us here at Intersections. First, military intervention continues to become the default position for us as a nation. We say it is a last resort, but we run there too quickly. Our government must find other avenues for peacemaking and then invest in those efforts with time, resources, personnel, energy and imagination so we do not continue to find ourselves boxed into corners where the only way out seems to be through military intervention. If we invested similar resources in seeking peaceful solutions, we might actually find peaceful solutions to these seemingly intractable issues between nations.

Second, by fostering conversations—in safe spaces, involving diverse and unexpected participants, where people build relationships over time—before untenable situations arise, we might uncover bold and innovative solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. But we seem to be afraid to construct these “open tables” where a variety of viewpoints can be shared. Do we fear loss of face, the appearance of weakness or naiveté, that we will be duped by scurrilous adversaries, that our domestic political foes will attack us?  Truth is, if we had spoken as resolutely about the open tables we need as we did about the red lines that could not be crossed, perhaps we would be in a very different conversation now.