09/06/2013 10:51 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Forget What the People Want

The current crisis on how to deal with Syria certainly looks like it will produce the most unlikely of all unintended consequences: namely, it is providing fertile ground for the convergence of the most extreme elements of both parties. Progressives and Tea Party patriots are coalescing around an opposition plank designed to both stop and embarrass the President.
As a progressive Democrat I have seen this coming for a while now. On several issues I have been publicly involved in over the past year I have cautioned my fellow progressives against positions that have found safety in the confines of the radical right libertarian wing of the Conservative party. Aligning such positions has always given me heartburn from an idealistic perspective regardless of the utility and potential of their political power.
As a student of government, by virtue of my academic background, professional career, and teaching credentials I have devoted many lectures and published articles dedicated to the proposition that our representative democratic government works best when the citizens have faith and trust in the judgment of their elected leaders. Absent popular confidence and credibility in either the leadership or institutional integrity the battle cry for following the will of the people commands center stage. And the problem with allowing decisions to be made by largely uninformed and emotional populism, much as with a lynch mob, is that those decisions are by their very definition uninformed and emotional.
The system is designed to entrust difficult decisions to those who are elected to do what is best for the citizens and the nation as a whole, not necessarily to do what they want. The hard part is to educate the citizenry to accept what is in their collective best interest whether it is readily apparent to them or not. That is the singular responsibility of statesmanship.
But just like the asinine proposition that we should elect leaders by virtue of whether or not we would want to have a beer with them, the left wing of the Democratic Party and the right wing of the Republican Party are now echoing each other's loud pronouncements that our political system should follow the will of the people. If that were the governing philosophy I shudder to think of all the progressive policies and laws that would have been forsaken in my lifetime alone. Integration, civil rights, voting rights, fair housing, the Great Society itself are all products of tough decisions made in many instances against the will and shrill of many in our society.
We elect our leaders to have access to information that we as ordinary citizens either do not have the time, inclination, intellect, or resources to deal with. That is why we pay them and their staffs. We must implicitly and explicitly have faith and trust in their abilities to exercise judgment based upon information that we do not have access to in order to protect us. This does not imply that transparency is not a virtuous ideal. In point of fact there is far too much secrecy and a lack of transparency in many of our processes and public debate today. Similarly there is far too much collusion and corruption between entrenched special interests with their large political action committees designed to legally bribe legislators today and this also must be fixed.
But the population at large is neither equipped nor capable of making the difficult decisions that are required and expected of our elected representatives. And in fairness the overwhelming desire of our representatives to be professional politicians makes them resistant to making the decisions that are required of them. Hence the vicious cycle of non-action and decisions to not make decisions.
While even a cursory study of American history suggests that there has always been a healthy dose of suspicion and wariness of concentrated governmental power we have witnessed, I believe, an unhealthy dose of skepticism since the 1980's when Ronald Reagan ran and won the Presidency on a platform that described government as the problem not the solution. This has fostered a self-fulfilling prophecy and as government became less responsive to real problems because it was populated at leadership levels by people who, well, did not believe in government, the people have become more cynical, distrustful, and actually resentful of government.
There is plenty enough blame to go around but it basically comes down to whether or not you believe in your government and those you elect to run it. Right now that trust has been eviscerated. Obama certainly inherited one hell of a mess and the gross distortions, deceit, and lies fomented by the Bush Administration and sadly facilitated by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had a high degree of gravitas and credibility as a serious public servant, now lends ammunition to those on the right and the left who simply do not trust government.
There are plenty of reasons to question why we should get involved in what is a vicious, bloody, and complicated civil war in Syria. But using the bogus argument that it is not what the people want does not rise to the level of seriousness required of such a weighty decision. And once again, if we are going to be consistent we must constantly ask ourselves how we would feel if the other side was proposing a course of action we disagreed with. I was furious with Bush over the decision to invade Iraq, but similarly I should be furious with Obama if the rationale is as faulty now as it was then with regard to Syria. But I do not want a straw poll of uninformed citizens making the decision; I want those who have information that I do not have to do so. If they are wrong they should be penalized at the ballot box.
There is a lesson here that I find instructive and it is the example set by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as he was leaving office in 1960. One of the most compelling arguments of this man who helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II was a visceral and intellectual hesitancy to engage in warfare. His farewell address talked of the dangers of a vast military industrial complex. This supreme commander, this vaunted military warrior, knew the cost of war in every sense and he viewed it as an absolute last resort. Who represents the equivalent of a military leader eschewing warfare today?
Lastly, what has been alleged and attributed to the Assad regime with respect to chemical weapons is an affront to the civilized world, not just the United States. If we are trying to send a signal to any would-be perpetrators of such immoral action it should be an international action, not that of a single nation. Our efforts ought to be directed towards exacting an international condemnation so powerful that retaliatory actions are simply beyond consideration. The world ought to be outraged and that ought to be reflected in the appropriate response. In order for this to happen the evidence should be so overwhelming, so incontrovertible, and so iron-clad that there is no doubt whatsoever as to who is responsible for this atrocity. Take the time necessary to ensure this. It is the right honorable thing to do, to paraphrase our British brothers and sisters.
This is a difficult and momentous decision, one that none of us would ever want to be confronted with. Most likely there will be second-guessing and argument either way for many years to come, so it is imperative that we do our best to get it right. Emotion should be neutralized to the utmost extent possible. This is not the people's call, that is up to our decision makers and they deserve both scrutiny and support because that is a critical component in their job descriptions.