09/02/2013 11:47 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Contemplating War

Once again our nation is contemplating an act of war, entering into one of the most solemn debates a society can have. It's worth restating some fundamental principles as that debate begins, especially for those of us who support economic justice, progressive ideals, and the reinvigoration of American democracy.

The first principle is respect for the Constitution.

Whatever your opinions about the President's national security policy, he unquestionably did the right thing this week when he affirmed Congress' role in matters of war. That's a clear break from the practices of the recent past, and he deserves praise for it.

The second principle is nonpartisanship.

'Nonpartisanship' describes ideas and ideals which aren't limited to any political party. That distinguishes it from 'bipartisanship,' a word derived from 'two-party' which typically describes an insular consensus of Washington D.C. insiders. Nonpartisan ideals include a respect for the security of all Americans and the goal of a just and stable world.

Questions of war and peace should be debated in a nonpartisan manner. Nobody should support military action out of party loyalty toward those who propose it, or oppose it because of animosity toward the party or the leader calling for it.

The third principle is mutual respect.

It would be tragic if the upcoming debate became yet another opportunity for Americans in general, and US progressives in particular, to become more divided. People who are inclined to support military intervention aren't necessarily tools of the military-industrial complex. Those of us who oppose it, or are asking hard questions, aren't indifferent to the suffering of the Syrian people.

Progressives can and should serve as a model for the rest of the country by showing that it's possible to disagree on issues of life and death without resorting to ad hominem attacks and that we can argue the case on its merits instead.

Fourth comes the 'oxygen-mask' principle.

Flight attendants always say something like this: "If you are traveling with a child or other passenger in need of assistance, please secure your own mask before helping others." This little speech based on a simple truth: You can't help someone else if you're weakened. Self-care helps you care for others.

A United States that's struggling with economic crises at home is less capable doing good around the world. At a time of rising poverty, prolonged unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and economic stagnation, we need to ask how the costs of a Syrian intervention -- whether expressed in dollars, lives, or national focus -- would affect us here at home.

Would they strengthen or weaken us? Would we become a better partner for peace around the world -- or a weaker, more divided one?

The fifth principle is respect for international law and authorities.

The progressive movement has always respected international law and authority. If there is conclusive evidence that the Assad government used chemical warfare on its own people, that terrible crime must be addressed. But we must act within international law, with respect for the institutions and authorities which it has created.

That means going to those authorities with our evidence, not acting unilaterally.

We'll be told that members of the United Nations Security Council will prevent this case from getting a fair hearing there. Then why not go to the UN General Assembly? This matter should be discussed before the entire world.

But we should avoid unilateral US action. We aren't the policemen of the world, and we're certainly not its judge, jury, and executioners. We don't have the legal right to act alone, and you can't end illegality by acting outside the law.

The sixth principle is that of an open mind.

If the evidence of Assad's chemical warfare is conclusive and the proper international authorities agree we should act, we'll then called upon to consider all possible options and match the means to the ends. 'Just war theory,' which has been around since the time of Saint Augustine, defines war as an act of last resort. That gives us the moral obligation to ask what other steps might be taken before engaging in military action.

Would international aid be more effective? Can we work with regional alliances? Are there other avenues we haven't adequately considered?

Seventh, we're called upon to make moral and rational choices.

If it's agreed that military action is our only recourse, it must be conducted in a moral and rational way, with goals that are both just and coherent. We have to ask ourselves:

What are our exact objectives? "Just war theory" allows for a number of moral and rational goals. They include overthrowing a dictator, punishing wrongful deeds, or ending a threat to the security of other nations. What would our goals be in Syria?

Are they achievable? We don't need to know in advance if a Syrian mission will work. Sometimes we have to take risks without knowing the outcome. But we need to know that it could work, and that it's worth trying.

Is this approach the best way to achieve them? The President insists Assad's use of chemical weapons must be punished to prevent him from doing it again. How do we know that the means now being contemplated, such as cruise missile strikes, will have that effect? Or, if the strikes are only "symbolic," is "symbolism" a clear enough objective?

Is it worth the sacrifice? Our nation has shown enormous willingness to sacrifice for oppressed peoples, or to ensure its own security. Are these sacrifices called for in this case? We've already discussed the economic costs, and human lives are far more precious. We need to know if the potential loss in Syrian and American lives is worth the anticipated gains.

Do we understand all the implications? International actions can have unintended consequences. How would a Syria strike affect the geopolitics of the region? Would we be indirectly supporting forces like al Qaeda?

Is this action designed to be limited and proportional? The President says his proposed attacks won't lead to a wider war. But his Congressional resolution appears open-ended, authorizing a wide array of future actions. If our goals are limited and proportional to the problem, as military action should be, the Congressional resolution should set explicit limits on future action.

The eighth and final principle is respect for human life, now and in the future.

The debate we're about to have will affect the lives of many people, and will determine whether fellow human beings live or die. It may shape the geopolitical conflicts of the future. What's more, the way we choose to conduct that debate will help shape the kind of country we become. A decision this grave can't be made in haste, or out of anger. It must be considered and discussed carefully and thoroughly.

There are moments in history when we're called upon to act as if the future is watching us -- because it is.

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