Before we start hand-wringing over the gridlock in our domestic affairs, let’s savor the good news on the international front: Last week, after years of paralysis, the UN Security Council mandated the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and endorsed a political transition plan that might finally sweep Syrian President Bashar Assad aside.
And after years of Iran’s refusal to talk seriously about its nuclear program, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, announced that he wants to resolve the issue in 12 months. He and President Obama even spoke on the phone, the first such contact since the 1970s.
Of course, we’re still a long way from solving those two problems. But we’re on a far better path than we were three weeks ago. Back then, we were on the verge of launching a unilateral military strike that would have inflamed the situation in Syria and hurt our chances of getting a nuclear deal with Iran. So how did that no-win situation in Syria turn into something positive? And what does this bizarre chapter in US diplomacy tell us about the nature of leadership itself?
Recall that Obama announced that he had made a decision to strike. Then he asked Congress to give its blessing. Those moves allowed time for Americans to debate, with the whole world watching. Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus were forced to contemplate the possibility of a US strike. The uncertainty of what would happen next weighed on them more heavily than a knee-jerk cruise missile. In the end, the threat of US military action proved more powerful than the action itself. Our adversaries finally agreed to a diplomatic solution that they had refused in the past.
Of course, Obama got called a lot of names for the delay that made that outcome possible: “weakling,” “ditherer-in-chief,” and— nastiest of all, in some corners — “community organizer.” I must admit that I thought he was crazy for going to Congress, which often seems more eager to tar and feather him than to approve of anything he wants.
But political theorist Dennis Thompson, co-author of the book “Why Deliberative Democracy?” says Obama’s moves mirrored a style of leadership Thompson taught at Harvard. Thompson believes that, in a true democracy, a leader ought to explain the reasoning behind the course of action he or she wants to take. But in the end, wherever possible, the group itself should debate it and have the final word.
“I don’t think [Obama] picked up a copy of our book,” Thompson said. “But in effect, he was acting on its principles. His motives were obviously mixed, as all politicians’ are. But the effect of this was to slow down the process of decision-making, which, it seems to me, was good.”
It stands to reason that a country that believes in democracy should have faith that a decision debated openly by a group will usually produce a better outcome than a decision one man makes alone. So, why then were some Americans so infuriated that Obama took the issue to Congress?
“It is as if we expect decisions of war and peace to be made by the president rather than society as a whole,” said Archon Fung, another Harvard professor who has studied the virtues of “deliberative democracy.” “Decisions about when to use military force . . . involve killing as a state act. If any decision should be made democratically, it’s this one.”
Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University, sees the public reaction as a sign of the times. Americans have grown less interested in the public deliberations that that make democracies work. Participation on juries and PTA meetings are at an all-time low, he said. Voters expect their elected leaders to solve their problems. Debates over the best way to go about it are seen as a sign of failure or weakness.
“Our system is supposed to be deliberative,” Levine said. “But we live in a profoundly anti-deliberative moment.”
So maybe this episode says as much about us as it does about our leader. We like John Wayne presidents, saviors who rescue us with their quick trigger fingers. We don’t like leaders who admit uncertainty, who ask us to help choose between imperfect options. But, at the end of the day, the Syria debate taught us that when Americans deliberate as a people, we can come up with a better outcome. It’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget.