Last week I had dinner with an old friend: Arab-raised, Western-educated, a multinational businessman who visits America often, he’s a global citizen with both familial links and economic ties in America.
We’d not seen each other in months, and over tacos and fizzy lemon drinks we quickly moved beyond small talk and family gossip to the issue of the moment — President Barack Obama’s plan to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
He had read my previous column opposing an American strike on Syria.
His own stance was agnostic: “Let Obama convince me that it will work.”
What did work, he said, and what awed him, was the national debate, which he attentively watched and listened to.
He was impressed: “We don’t have this kind of process. We don’t have a voice on who or how or why our governments commit us to war. As messy as your process is, it is better than anything we have. That’s why our young people have been in the streets and that’s why people are dying — so that we can have messy debates like yours.”
For all the criticism I have of President Obama’s intentions in Syria, I applaud him for his decision to take the debate to Congress; that was the right thing to do. Issues of war and peace are once again being held in the public square. In the end, the man who once taught constitutional law did the right constitutional thing.
He took it to the people via their senators and representatives.
The polls are overwhelming in their rejection of the president’s intention, reflecting American war-weariness and post-traumatic stress syndrome incurred in wars and conflicts in the post 9/11 years.
On the rejectionist side, with which I agree, there are many who oppose intervention for legitimate political and strategic reasons.
Those rejectionists, combined with those who have an animus toward Obama (let no good intention go unopposed) and toward Muslims in general, skew the results.
These unlikely bedfellows, anti-interventionists, Obama haters, Islamophobes (“Let Allah sort it out”), war-weary Americans and liberals who oppose war in general may bring down Obama’s plans without further consideration of what America’s true interests are.
On the interventionist side, the combination of the war criminals who brought us war and torture in Iraq, Republicans and conservatives who never saw a war they didn’t like, and special interests like AIPAC support a muscular agenda that I believe is not in our best interest and without any consideration of what America’s true interests are.
Personally, I reject Obama’s plan because I don’t believe it will have any effect on Syria’s willingness to use or not use chemical weapons.
Personally, I reject Obama’s plan because it further diminishes our already limited ability to be an interlocutor between antagonists. I reject Obama’s plan because it ignores the unavoidable fact that only a comprehensive Middle East peace plan can secure everyone’s interests — including America’s.
What would be in our interest is a debate of what a comprehensive Middle East peace would look like once the final legacies of colonial and dictatorial interests have been discarded.
What would be in our interest is a debate that includes all points of view. Think for a moment how few Syrian, Arab, Muslim voices you have been exposed to during the current debate. Consider how many of the experts you’ve listened to are white privileged scholars of the Middle East or Islam. Consider how few voices of the “Other” have been presented to you.
America’s seemingly incoherent foreign policy today reflects, I believe, the fact that even from his days as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama was not permitted any opportunity to evolve a strategic Middle East approach beyond the “conventional wisdom” embraced by the Washington establishment. During his campaign he was forced to disassociate himself from scholars like Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University, not because their views were dangerous but because their views were not establishment views.
Today, we pay for a sometimes incoherent and often emasculated foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, because of the fear by many that Obama was too close to being the “Other.”
Sadly, Obama never found a way to push back.
In 2008, presidential aspirant Barack Obama said, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
I agree, but what the president does have power to do under the Constitution is to try to negotiate a just peace between antagonists based on social justice, dignity, respect and mutual security.
America’s true interest in the region is peace — peace that would provide security not just for the region but also for America.
It’s not about “red lines,” red faces or red alerts.
It’s about finding a path to peace.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.