08/31/2013 04:20 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2013

Red Lines and Treasure

Have you ever been in the desert? As a young seeker I did a walkabout and lived for a spell in a small oasis village in the Sahara. Hot days, cold night skies, brilliant with pulsating stars. Today, as the drum beats to a military strike on Syria grow louder, our government is intent on upholding its credibility, backing up its word. We drew a red line, that line was crossed, and now we must back it up with action. Words won't suffice, diplomacy isn't enough, we must do something, or at least be seen as doing something.

Have we boxed ourselves into a corner by good intentions and dangerously simplistic thinking? One thing I learned in the desert is that sand storms happen. Every crevice of your body ends up with sand. All the lines we draw, even hard lines, even hard red lines, are really lines drawn in the sand. They go poof in a sand storm.

Limited strike. Surgical approach. No boots on the ground. It is foolhardy, self-deceptive, and dangerous to think that we can control the radiating impacts of military force. Especially in the powder keg that is today's Middle East. Kerry sounds sincere, Obama sounds thoughtful. But they are not thinking straight.

The cloud of Iraq hangs over us, some say, and it is preventing us from responding adequately. What deluded rubbish! To the contrary. Perhaps we have actually learned something from 12 years of war, learned not to trust our knee jerk impulsive self-serving reactions, to be wary of our short memory, to recognize selective amnesia, to catch ourselves and wake up from collective dissociation. Learned to think. To think in terms of multiple intersecting mutually influencing impacts over decades and centuries.

And yes, maybe we have learned not to blindly and roguishly risk the treasure that is the young lives of our service men, women and their families.

As children and teenagers we are taught to be aware of the consequences of our actions. Actions have impacts that ripple out in many dimensions and last a long time. Their effects manifest in ways we did not initially anticipate. Being aware of and anticipating the consequences of our actions is a developmental achievement. Being responsible for the web of impacts that has ensued from our actions, intended or not, is, likewise, an ongoing achievement.

We must act, we must back up our talk of red lines. Or else. Or else what? What would happen if Obama reconsidered, while keeping open the military option and embarked on a relentless full court press on political, diplomatic, economic and moral fronts, simultaneously. Would he lose face? Would we lose credibility? What would the potential gains be? What losses, what escalations would we possibly sidestep? Would we be better positioned, as things unfold? Would we have more options to be a constructive force later on perhaps?

How irresponsible to see ourselves as moral police, to think that a one-off military strike will "teach (Assad) a lesson" and deter him from further use of chemical weapons. Someone acting like a madman -- how likely is it that such a person will be brought to his knees and, chastened, suddenly see the light? Bloody unlikely. Social, political and moral capital, and the collective force for change that comes with them, are accrued by example, over long periods of time.

The Washington Post reported the deep doubts of many US military personnel. Colonel Jack Jacobs, Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient, and MSNBC military analyst, said: "This isn't going to stop (Assad) from using chemical weapons again. Only a massive exercise of military might. It's an empty gesture." I am proud of our military community's courage in speaking out. Even conservative columnist David Brooks is thinking systemically and advocating caution.

Okay, Mr. President, you boxed yourself in a corner. But you can get out with but a glancing blow to your pride. Man up, stay strong, stay the course, committed to the long game, the big interconnected picture. Wake up, remember the unpredictability of military action and its devastating consequences. Send a message. Sometimes the strongest person, the wisest person in the room, sees his error and makes a course correction. A passing blow to your image is a small price to pay. There's still time!