Barack Obama is facing one of the most difficult decisions of his presidency, one that will have profound consequences for not only this nation but for humankind as he sorts through options on how to deal with ISIS or ISIL. Let's hope that contemplation wins out over retaliation.
One of the qualities many of us saw in the man early on was his cool and calm demeanor on issues large and small. In many ways it was comforting after eight years of chicken hawk bravado and cowboy machismo. The time for thoughtful reflection and sober deliberation before engaging in potentially self-destructive action was long overdue and Obama exhibited characteristics of that kind of leader. A carefully thought out and planned response to the brutality and dangers of this new extremist challenge, factoring in the incredibly complicated variables involved and the need to avert unintended long-term consequences is paramount.
"Bring em on" was a sincere but silly incantation designed to pander to the frayed emotions of an angry, fearful, and psychologically wounded public. For the record let it be made clear that history has taught us it is important that on matters of war and peace our leaders do not blindly follow the advice of either our military advisors or the chicken hawk neoconservatives who populated and directed the last administration. However, it is important that they adhere to principles of statesmanship.
There is little doubt that the missteps, miscalculations, misadventures, and misguided strategies set in motion after 9/11 by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and others has spectacularly failed to deliver anything other than a knee-jerk, feel-good, chest-pounding declaration of our capacity to inflict pain, destroy communities and nation-states, and galvanize a level of hatred and opposition that will last generations.
Graham Allison taught us in the Essence of Decision-making, his seminal work analyzing the dynamics of the Cuban Missile Crisis about the importance of considering both the short-and long-term implications of decisions. The steely determination of President Kennedy combined with the foresight to attempt to calculate potential reaction from our adversary combined to diffuse a situation that could have spelled a cataclysmic doom affecting hundreds of millions of people.
Kennedy showed that one can be strong and determined while preserving our long-term interests. Obama similarly needs to calculate a strategy and set of actions that do not serve the desires of the short-term at the expense of the needs for the long-term. To say that this will be a difficult maneuver is an understatement of the highest magnitude. So please take your time and get it right.
Few of us can definitively suggest the appropriate course of action as we are not privy to the information and intelligence necessary to weigh the various options. This is why we have a representative democracy, a system where our elected representatives utilize their informed judgment to make such decisions. If we truly believe in this form of democratic process then we must adhere to the mechanisms that make it run.
In my recent book, The Evolution of a Revolution, I clearly delineate six steps we can take to ensure that the systems and processes outlined in the construction of our government by the Founding Fathers do in fact render decisions that benefit the country and its citizens and I believe they are instructive here:
1. Restore the notion that public service is of value.
2. Recommit to the principle that government can work.
3. Replace special interest influence with commitment to the public interest.
4. Demand that our elected leadership focus on long-term solutions.
5. Ensure that statesmanship, which entails vision and wisdom, supplants preoccupation with leadership, which can be either positive or negative.
6. Remove the corrupting influence of money from politics and governing.
I am convinced that if we commit to and demand from our elected leaders a commitment to these six principles we can once again have a functional and effective system of governance that will render decisions that benefit the long-term interests of our nation.
And whatever decisions are ultimately offered to confront the current crisis let them be driven by cool calculation not red-hot zealotry. The President is in an unenviable position, but letting Obama be Obama will have profound consequences for leaders and citizens far into the future. The country and the world need a statesman and this is your moment.