The TakeAway: The swirl of action surrounding whether or not to intervene militarily in Syria tends to overlook opportunities, beyond polling, for average people to weigh in. That’s bad for deliberative democracy—especially when military power is involved. As a “prismatic case”—e.g., one both immediate (“To bomb or not to bomb?”) and long-term (“What is our moral obligation in the world?”) such questions demand broader citizen engagement rather than remain dominated by pols, pundits, and policy wonks.
In nooks and crannies, some of that is happening via social media platforms such as Facebook, or the “comments” sections of digital media outlets. Our challenge, as citizens, is to use them more, to listen to and learn from each other, and help restore deliberative democracy to its proper place. Here’s a glimpse into three citizens who refuse to let others do all the talking, and crowd out the rest of us.
President Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday night about intervening in Syria answered some questions, but raised more. While most Americans are weary of yet another war and oppose intervention, there are compelling moral, political, economic, and environmental issues embedded in this “wicked problem”—“wicked” both literally (the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the atrocities inflicted) and figuratively (a highly complex tangle of multiple issues, involving life and death). Looming over it all: the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), adopted unanimously at the U.N. World Summit in 2005.
Most of the debate has occurred behind closed doors until, on August 31st, the President said that even though he believed he had the authority to carry out military action without specific congressional authorization, he was going to “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress…I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”
That was a welcome move by many who believe that Congress should play a role in these things, even though technically the President doesn’t need to. What’s at stake is an international commitment forged in the aftermath of World War II with the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You don’t need Congress to ratify what’s already been endorsed. Throughout, the President seems to be “thinking out loud”—a laudable stance in this era of “world disorders“, given multiple actors, possible outcomes, and high stakes.
Which Rationality? Prominent People Speak Out
Certainty is a luxury at a time like this. That’s because humanitarian intervention appears, as the esteemed Joe Nye puts it, “more about struggles over political legitimacy and soft power than it is about hard international law.” Nye is University Professor at Harvard, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, and chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council. He’s a highly esteemed public intellectual and has written extensively on the changing nature of geopolitical power—“soft”, “smart”, and “hard”—in international relations.
“When we cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue, and hubristic visions can pose a grave danger,” Nye says. “Foreign policy, like medicine, must be guided by the principle, ‘First, do no harm‘.
Prudence does not mean that nothing can be done in Syria. Other governments can continue to try to convince Russia that its interests are better served by getting rid of the current regime than by permitting the continued radicalization of his opponents. Tougher sanctions can continue to delegitimize the regime, and Turkey might be persuaded to take stronger steps against its neighbor.
Moreover, prudence does not mean that humanitarian interventions will always fail. In some cases, even if motives are mixed, the prospects of success are reasonable, and the misery of a population can be relieved at modest expense. Military interventions in Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor, and Bosnia did not solve all problems, but they did improve the lives of the people there. Other interventions—for example, in Somalia—did not.
At a panel discussion at Harvard’s Institute of Politics on Wednesday night, Nye expressed his support for the President’s proposal. According to The Harvard Crimson, he said that he does not believe the United States should become too involved in the issue. Instead, he said, the US should be more concerned with East Asia, “the heart of the world’s economy.”
Fortunately, a flurry of diplomatic maneuverings are now underway following what Stephen Colbert called a “diplo-gaffe” by Secretary of State John Kerry. (Who knows if it was a gaffe? Maybe it was visionary…) Crisis averted. “The Russian option”—its call for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons—is now on the table. The U.S. and Russians are currently deliberating in Geneva over a plan to secure and dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons. Included are a series of “early tests” to determine how serious Russia and Syria are.
In Thursday’s New York Times, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had an op ed through which he was speaking “directly to the American people and its leaders”. He “welcomed” President Obama’s call for dialogue with Russia about Syria, stating it would “improve the atmosphere in international relations and strengthen mutual trust.”
At least one esteemed peacemakers I know was impressed with Putin’s piece. Padraig O’Malley, Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation at UMass Boston says, “It’s role reversal. Has Putin become Obama? Obama, as a constitutional lawyer, is aware of what he can and can’t do under international law. In the global stadium, Putin hit the first home run, while Obama still struggles to find first base.” If Obama can find his way through this, O’Malley continued, it would be a diplomatic coup.
Generally, though, Putin’s words caused an immediate fuss: Congressional leaders disputed the “exceptionalism” comment, human rights activists accused him of hypocrisy and grandstanding, and other roundly criticized his transparent hubris. There’s even a collection of the “20 best Twitter reactions”. The White House was more demure, dismissing Putin’s punditry, according to reports, and noting that both he and President Obama are now “invested” in Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament.
The Big Picture
So we’ve move back from the brink. But the issue remains: What is our moral obligation within a geopolitical context? For me, this resembles the question underlying sustainability issues: What is our moral obligation within a geo-economic context? Be it military action or business action, moral discernment about the right thing to do needn’t “crowd out” practical considerations; nor should it occur among the global elite, “crowding out” average people. Indeed, “morality”, as Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson informs us, has a biological base. We’re “wired” that way.
Among pols, pundits, and policy wonks, the question of U.S. firing Tomahawk missiles from offshore ships to prevent further slaughter of Syrian civilians blends both militaristic and moralistic considerations into a seductive cocktail. The airwaves are filled with talking heads defending different positions; the mainstream and “alternative” media offer up views from all sides. My favorite sources of information—public radio and TV, The New York Times, and The Guardian—provide a wealth of information, providing sober insight into the prism of what, essentially, is a mix of religion, social policy, and international affairs.
Tom Ashbrook’s radio program, On Point, has covered Syria several times, each one evoking hundreds of public comments. On Monday, On Point’s topic was “Big Thinkers on Syria: Morality and Strategy”, featuring esteemed moral philosopher Michael Walzer. Walzer is a “just war” theorist, public intellectual, and author who now is professor emeritus at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study.
The question of Syria is what Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, professor of the practice of religion and public life at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, calls a “prismatic case”—that is, one that offers insights about the right thing to do in the immediate situation (“to bomb or not to bomb”), but also offers something to the wider public debate about moral values and the obligations of the nation state and public power. It’s about asking the question, What is our long-term contribution, at this point in human history? Morever, it’s about the ethical role of institutions, not just governments. That includes business and civil society, too.
The U.N. appears incapable of action, in part due to the intractability on the Security Council where politics trumps deliberative decision making. (Although late reports are that the Security Council is posed to discuss a resolution on Syria’s chemical arms due to renewed diplomatic pressure.) The U.S. Congress suffers from the same pathology: “Stall-itus”, where a bloc determined to oppose anything the President proposes creates more intractability and gridlock. The 11-year old International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague, lacks enforcement powers, as Michael Walzer pointed out on Ashbrook’s show. It has no staff to execute whatever decision is made.
Meanwhile, Syrian Americans weigh in with the same disagreements over what to do. Some support a U.S. led military strike; others oppose it. A few put the spotlight on humanitarian needs of the refugees and Syria’s poor and homeless. According to the Arab American Institute (AAI), “While the responses…do not fully represent the spectrum of Arab American or Syrian American opinions on U. S. involvement in Syria, we all agree that Arab American voices must be part of this dialogue and hope these views can contribute to the ongoing deliberations in Congress and around the world.” AAI invites those who wish to comment to go to the AAI webpage and do so, including non-Syrian Americans.
Which Rationality? Plain People Speak Out
The idea of active civic engagement, of mutual accountability between citizens and their elected representatives through robust discussion, even disagreement, of important issues, is a foundation of deliberative democracy. That’s the basis of years of work conducted by current University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Harvard political philosopher. It’s a process that requires what Internet pioneer Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, calls “aggressive listening”—you can’t uphold foundational values by imposing yours on others, and refusing to acknowledge alternative views. After all, there’s a “pluribus” in “unum”.
A problem, though, is how to engage a citizenry when they’ve been crowded out by experts, almost as if they don’t matter at all. “Leave the driving to us” is not just a retro Greyhound Bus slogan—it’s the attitude of many of our elected officials, media barons, and think tankers who seem to feel that they know better that the rest of us how to deal with the pressing issues of our time.
This is HUGELY ironic, because the debate over Syria has deferred another major crisis that looms: passing a federal budget for 2014 within a self-imposed debt ceiling. At the moment, prospects look grim for science funding and a host of other domestic priorities that will get America on the move again.
So what are average people to do?
As an anxiety ridden optimist, I’m heartened by the fledgling power of social media to give folks a platform to deliberate and debate. For many of us, social media has crept into many parts of our lives. A lot of people have gotten over their initial reluctance, shyness, or aversion to “going public” and are now finding that forums such as Facebook and Twitter provide welcome alternatives to the pub, sewing circle, or church gathering of early eras. They’re a source of entertainment and conversation, of catching up with old friends and making new ones, of enjoying the trivial or engaging in weightier fare.
They’re the digital campfire of the 21st century.
Last Saturday, I posted an article that Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich wrote for the Boston Globe. It was about Syria, and entitled “Forays into the Islamic world have had bad consequences”. It evoked a rich and thoughtful exchange among three men who do not have Ivy League pedigrees or occupy a journalist’s call list. They haven’t been published or featured in Wikipedia entries, nor have they secured grants to conduct field studies or other forms of research.
But I find their opinions as sophisticated and nuanced as those of Joe Nye, Michael Walzer, Padraig O’Malley, or Bryan Hehir. I realize I sound rather patronizing and am heavy on the male side here, and as an unabashed feminist, I regret that I haven’t included more women in this discussion. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power immediately comes to mind, but Aryt Alasti already referred to her, so I’ll defer to his comments.
My point is this: We need to talk with each other more about “wicked problems”, and use whatever platforms are comfortable for us to do so. We don’t need to wait for someone else to organize an event or Town Hall, or conduct a poll. We already have the digital tools to engage. Our challenge, as citizens, is to use them, and help restore deliberative democracy to its proper place.
What follows is an abridged and slightly edited version of their exchange.
Scott Lucas is a former rancher and artist now living in Pennsylvania. A couple years ago, he organized an “Americans Concerned” discussion group on Facebook. He wrote, For at least 4,000 years this has been the case. They say Obama is well read in history. So either he is ignoring history, or chooses to let his own feelings cloud his judgement, as many others are. This is a trap. Plain to see, with Children as the bait for the U.S. and her allies. When we stop going for the bait, maybe, just maybe they’ll stop using it?
Scott Lucas’s comments evoked a response from Aryt Alasti, a longtime staffer at Harvard University who believes that a better world is possible, and “hopes to make some contribution to that eventuality.” He’s an active member of Responsible Investment Coalition at Harvard.
“I can’t entirely agree,” he wrote, referring to Lucas’s remarks. “At times, it’s not difficult to identify evil, but too often our country and others have aligned themselves with it, or turned a blind eye to it, due to ‘expediency’, and we have committed evils, with national security as a justification.
Saddam Hussein committed genocide against the southern Shiites as well, and the world did nothing. 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, and undoubtedly tens of thousands more will die, yet there’s little likelihood of intervention to try what might be possible to prevent more of same. What’s been tried hasn’t been effective.
The international community has agreed on the ‘responsibility to protect’, but as with agreements on addressing climate change, the protocols for representative decision-making are so dysfunctional in their implementation that there is never follow-through so as to make staunch assertions of intent become a reality.
Countries with veto power on the Security Council and in major negotiations prioritize sovereignty and self-interest above all. Where there are regional correspondences of interests, NATO and the African Union have had some successes with restoring and keeping some semblance of the peace, but globally, to the extent that global collective action is needed to counter those threats and atrocities which anyone in their right mind would agree must be dealt with, it’s not happening.
Granted, outcomes cannot be predicted with certainty, but a consistent agenda of acting with as much of humanity’s resources as can be made available for countering and nullifying what are undeniable evils and world-scale endangerments, though it would involve major hardships and sacrifices, would I believe overall result in an evolution of our circumstances in a very positive direction which increasingly would have widespread support.
Here’s Samantha Powers’ take on the situation in Syria [citing her speech last Friday at the Center for American Progress. Power, who was professor of human rights practice of Harvard, is noted particularly for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, published in 2002.]
Michael Burke, mentioned in my recent post on “bending the arc of money and power“, is a new grandfather, old high school friend, and veteran of the civil rights movement. Burke lives in Florida with his wife Jane Charland, another high school grad from my hometown.
“I appreciate what Bacevich states, and I think he’s correct when during the Moyers & Company piece he asserts that our President’s thinking is being formulated around what he is being told,” Burke wrote. “I am among those leery of the counsel given. While the presentation offered by Ms. Powers is finely constructed, she asks ‘What would words achieve?’ It is fair to compare and contrast this question to, ‘What would bombs achieve?’
The outcomes surely seem precariously assumed. In the additional perspective offered by Nicholas Burns buttressing Ms. Powers’ assertions, the five elements offered in support of military intervention in Syria are (to me) hazy with respect to definite outcomes, and questionable as to being fact-based. While I appreciate the words reflecting human caring, personally I am left with a continuing view that there ARE non-military alternatives which carry the potential (and necessity) of methods that move more toward what must inevitably become increasingly globally collaborative & less militarily expressed.
Entwined in all of this is a varying point of view of what defines ‘leadership’. To me, ‘leadership is NOT about placing oneself out in front, it is about helping others get to where they need to be’.
The growing scarcity of the world’s essential natural resources is giving rise to requisite levels of global collaboration as never before. That collaboration will be powerfully opposed by the forces of economic vultures who are picking clean the bones of grandmother earth. If we truly wish to move against those unleashing chemical toxins against the civilian populations of the world, then move against the trans-national corporations that are injecting their poisons into our water and soils, and exploding even more toxins into the air we all breathe.
Where is the sabre-rattling against that?
I say, move to HELP the Syrian refugees and the nations who offer them safe harbor with the greatest demonstration of assistance ever shown. And shame Assad and his geo-political allies for their lack of humanity. If you wish to take peace-loving persons and make them your enemies for life, kill their families. Conversely, if you wish to make peace-loving persons your friends for life, help them help their families.
And that’s true here at home, too. The ‘where‘ to which others and ourselves need to ‘be’ is in a rapidly increasing atmosphere of global collaboration. Humankind is not sustainable without it. Call me naive, if you wish. But I believe in peace. And I question war as a doorway to it.
Scott Lucas again: “I think you just related to what most Americans are feeling if not understanding so deeply, Michael. For my own contribution I would add that the U.S. was built on the premise of Majority of The People’s opinion and views. Not the whims of a President, the Military Industrial Complex, Oil Companies.
If Congress does not reflect this Majority Rule, the disconnect and broken part becomes obvious. If Congress does reflect the concerns of the apparent Majority of Americans, and the President acts anyway, again the broken parts become obvious…
I would submit one other point that is continually ducked by supporters of a strike. Where was the outrage for the last three years as over a hundred thousand have been killed including Women and Children. I deeply question the agenda and intent in singling out Chemical Weapons which while abhorrent, in fact has had far less effect in the overall death toll in all manner of death and destruction. It really does appear to be more an excuse then righteous indignation.
Referring to corporate lobbyists and the military industrial complex, Mike Burke replied: “I keep mindful of who the actual forces are that are animating the actions of the governmental ‘representatives’. They don’t represent US. Our breakdowns are systemic. Bacevich is correct when he states that our military is Washington, D.C.’s military, and by extension the economic powers that have seized control. We have much to do. The first of which is to correctly identify the enemy.”
This is, of course, a partial glimpse into an ongoing discussion that continues, not just about Syria but other things, too. I’m fortunate to have so many friends and colleagues who care about these things, who take their citizenship seriously.
It reminds me of back in the day, when writing a letter to the editor was an act of citizenship. Now we can write to each other, for all to see.
I know I’m not alone with these exchanges. They’re happening all over, online and in face-to-face encounters. The problem is that the powers-that-be need to pay more attention. And we, the people, need to raise the volume—not just make more noise, but make more common sense, and get back on the bus.
If anything positive comes out of the hairball of Syria, that’s all well and good.
Perhaps more important, though, is that it provides the opportunity for the American people to start practicing what got us going in the first place: honest and thoughtful deliberation, even protest—along reasoned lines of discourse with “aggressive listening” and respect as hallmarks—about the critical issues of our time.
Imagine such a conversation about how to remedy the corrupting influence of asymmetric corporate power on our democracy? Now THAT would be something!