Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion


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“You don’t speak about democracy, you ‘do’ democracy.”                                              Joaquim Chissano, Former President Mozambique

Let me say from the outset that, as a rule, I stay away from offering opinions and judgments about international issues and about the course of action that our government should take in resolving such conflicts. I have discovered that “world problems” are far too complex and nuanced to pronounce quick and definitive solutions. While many people view decisions in world affairs as being simply “black or white,” or “yes or no,” or “good vs. evil,” I know that the intricacies involved in such decision-making are often in the gray area. Therefore, with the many grave ramifications that these issues present, for one to arrive at conclusions requires thorough investigation, an evaluation of all of the facts – and consideration of all points of view.

However, and without being presumptuous, I will now take the rare liberty of offering some thoughts on the issue of Syria, in order to point out some other more meaningful aspects of the events that are worthy of notice.

All this past week we have heard numerous commentators declare that America should bomb Syria to “send a message” to President Assad about his use of chemical weapons against his own people. The nations of the world have long joined together to forge international agreements prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. The deployment of chemical weapons is so horribly repugnant that even Assad himself has categorized it as a “weapon of mass destruction.”

Proponents of military options say there should be punitive consequences for such actions. They believe that surgical strikes against Syria are the only way to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons. They believe that sending Syria “messages in missiles” is the only language Assad would understand.

On the other hand, many Americans are weary of wars and are firmly against attacking Syria in any form or fashion. They believe the Syrians should resolve their own problems. They say that air strikes against that country’s military will open up collateral or residual problems. They fear that military action will only lead to further hurt and to the death and displacement of even more innocent people. They worry that our servicemen and women will be needlessly placed in harm’s way. They are concerned that America will be dragged into another costly war – one that may not be resolved in short order.

Ultimately President Obama has decided to consult Congress over the course of action that our nation should take. This is a key “message within the message” which has significant value at this critical time in our democracy: the message that democracy is just and that it is a core value as our country’s guiding decision-making process.

Rather than making a unilateral decision to take military action, President Obama has diplomatically deferred to Congress. Not since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has a major decision to “go to war,” been relegated to Congress. The Constitution grants to Congress the power to declare war (in this case, missile strikes) so this is exactly how such a decision should be made. It is only in cases of imminent danger to America that the president has the authority, as commander-in-chief and chief executive, to make the decision to go to war without such counsel and consent. Obama did the right thing by deferring to Congress to debate and decide whether military action should be taken.

So, the message embodied in our governing process is that democracy – government by consensus – can work, even across party lines. Some decisions should be made because the choice is the right thing to do and it will aid our country, support our allies, uplift the oppressed, harmonize world dissonance and help establish world justice and peace. Every political decision does not require partisan political grandstanding or political one-upmanship.

Our representatives should sit down and iron out disparities through fervent and passionate conversation until they decide how to solve this problem. It is important for both sides of the aisle in Congress to sit down together and have forthright, honest debate about the course of action that will ultimately affect the entire nation and the world. Whatever the ultimate outcome of those talks, the fact remains that the two parties have come together for decision-making – and that strengthens our governing process. Jointly deciding a prescribed course of action, rather than shutting down talks because of ideological differences, strengthens us as a nation. This is what democracy is all about. And in the end, if they agree, or agree to disagree, at least they would have had genuine bi-partisan dialogue over the issues, in order to broker a meaningful decision.

Politics in Washington should work this way. Politics in the rest of America should also work this way. Enough of the stalemate and gridlock that we have seen over the past few years, where partisan political bickering upstages and “trumps” the integrity and efficacy of genuine political statesmanship. There are too many problems that still need to be solved in America and the world, too many challenges that must be addressed, to waste valuable political capital on glacial, inertial politics and what James MacGregor Burns calls the “politics of drift.”

The process employed to reach such decisions, the painstaking evaluation, thoughtful discussion and passionate debate – this process is a benchmark of American representative democracy. What does this consensus model of leadership and decision-making mean in a world that is far too complex – and to a  global community that is far too intertwined – to not take consensus seriously?

The American consensus model demonstrates that, whenever a decision is made that affects the lives of people and puts them in life or death situations, reaching that decision must involve as many different persons and viewpoints as humanly and practically possible.

In the present situation involving Syria, each decision has far more gravity, more of a seismic rippling effect, than we can ever imagine. Therefore, this conversation should include leaders in our government, and it should also include the American people so that every possible option is considered in addressing these critical problems. To keep the conversation transparent, it should include the media. Such conversation should also include our allies in the region and perhaps even our opponents. We should consider the views of stakeholders in other countries such as Russia, China and even Syria itself.

In human conflict, there are far too many “unknowns” to believe it is possible to be exact. There are always factors that can complicate and subvert even the most detailed and precise plans for conflict resolution. There is value in talking matters out and listening to all sides of the issue before deciding a course of action. There is value in deliberation, however exhausting. There is honor in considering all points of view, however tedious. There is wisdom in ferreting out all of the facts before making a final decision.

So, a final “message within the message” is that time can be an ally in this case, allowing prudent heads to weigh in so that we are not hastily ushered into decisions that we may come to regret. Therefore, there is no harm in waiting for the UN inspectors to issue their forthcoming report, rendering their final judgment about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Before we can trust the information that informs our final decision, we must verify the sources and veracity of that intel. We must clarify and qualify the assumptions that inform our actions. We must reason, inductively and deductively, by conventional or even by “fuzzy” logic. We must go through fire and water and move heaven and earth in making a decision that carries with it the power and potential to end lives.

To be sure, there are “messages in the missiles.” Let us remember as well that there are also messages sent by the example of our democratic deliberative process. There are important messages conveyed when there is a moderated tenor and tone, contained pretext and presumptions, a sensible manner and matter of the meeting.

Perhaps the most important message – as this decision is made about Syria – will be how America arrives at its final decision. So, as I take this foray into the discussion of international affairs, I do so to state that while some critics of the president assert that turning to Congress and others makes him “look weak” – I disagree. I say that by honoring the American way of reaching consensus, he instead demonstrates his strength and the strength of his commitment to our time-honored American way of “doing democracy.”


2 responses to “A MESSAGE WITHIN A MESSAGE – “Doing Democracy””

  1. Ed Hightower Avatar
    Ed Hightower

    Good point about decision process. Perhaps this can become the pattern for our government leaders, and help to avoid rushes to judgement in the future.

    1. cfstewart Avatar

      Great hearing from you. The problem is that with the current scenario the options are limited to military strikes and the diplomatic alternatives are obviated. With all the options available to us as a country in our constitutional democracy, we should take advantage of them and let diplomacy work. War should be a last resort. There are so many other ways of sending a message to get the point across that will help move towards the desired goals and objectives so that chemical weapons, which have been outlawed, are no longer used.

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