THE BLOG

Obama's Brush With Postmodernism

09/16/2013 01:40 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

The U.S. and Russia have reached a deal over dismantling Syria's store of chemical weapons. Getting there required going down some new roads politically. And philosophically.

The day after President Obama's address on Syria this past Tuesday, David Frum wrote in the Daily Beast that the speech displayed a split personality, as he argued for and against military intervention. This echoed Dan Senor's insistence on ABC's This Week that the issue was "binary." To bomb or not to bomb.

In the days that followed, events took quite a different turn. The Syrian government, spurred on by Russia, its main supporter, said it was ready to place all of Syria's chemical weapons under international control and not to use such weapons in the future.

Credit goes to President Obama for not allowing binary logic to force his hand. His decision to take the issue to Congress created space for a conversation with the American people about what to do. Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin participated. The former gave an interview to Charlie Rose and the latter published an op-ed in the New York Times. Some have commented that the President looks less anguished having escaped from the binary box his "red line" helped create.

Not everyone supported the process that led to the settlement. Pro-intervention New York Post columnist John Podhoretz wrote a piece headlined "Feckless Obama Embarrasses the Nation." But an extended conversation among the American people, Congress, and world leaders is far from embarrassing. It is welcome. It's clear that neither side in the Syrian civil war is particularly appealing. One is accused of using chemical weapons, while the other summarily executes prisoners of war in violation of Article 13 of the Geneva Convention. And yet, the most rigid and vested of commentators declare that it is a simple question. To bomb or not. Yes or no. And, of course, if the settlement unravels, they will be the first to say "we told you so."

The "yes or no" approach to viewing the world goes back to Aristotle who set Western philosophy and civilization on its logical course by asserting that something must be "A" or "not A." He established the law of the excluded middle. This principle has been central to how we are taught to understand politics. Maybe we need a new way of thinking, a way that leads to new possibilities, like peace and harmony, rather than seeing our leaders, our country, and our world pushed by "logic" into bloody military conflicts to avoid looking indecisive.

Some argue that Russian President Putin's initiative was an effort to play President Obama, by allowing the Russians to continue supporting Assad without being accused of supporting the gassing of innocent people. More important, we would argue, is that Obama's going to Congress opened up new possibilities for the two countries to find a mutually agreeable way to de-escalate the conflict and move towards a resolution of the chemical weapons "crisis."

Well before he ran for president, Obama spurned the trap of "either/or" thinking. In The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, he wrote:

For it's precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country. It's what keeps us locked in "either/or" thinking: the notion that we can have only big government or no government; the assumption that we must either tolerate forty-six million without health insurance or embrace 'socialized medicine.' It is such doctrinaire thinking and stark partisanship that have turned Americans off of politics.

For independents like us, it was such appeals to put aside ideology (what is more binary than "left and right"?) and work together for a more humane and secure country and world, which got us to vote for him in the first place. That vision almost perished in the ensuing years of hyper-partisan warfare inside the beltway. Maybe Obama has decided to go postmodern as an alternative to war. That would be good -- no two ways about it.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org.
Jacqueline Salit is President of IndependentVoting.org and the author of Independents Rising.