THE BLOG
10/15/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

The Path to Healing in the Middle East

If you've ever been in a fight with a loved one, you know that in the heat of the moment we can say and sometimes do quite damaging things, even to those we love most.

Our bodies and brains are geared to respond to a fight with aggressive self-protection and we often try to one-up the other by hurting them first so we don't feel as vulnerable ourselves.

The challenge, as we all know, is that these cycles of escalation tend to lead to mistrust, hardened defenses, festering wounds, and broken relationships that can take years to heal.

Learning to disarm and be honest in a vulnerable way, as well as make amends for what is said or done in anger, is key to restoring the sense of respectful, loving connection.

Relations between nations and cultures have some parallel dynamics. When we feel threatened, dishonored or wronged, our natural tendency is to escalate and worsen situations based on the simple logic of our self-preservationist biology. We start seeing people only through the eyes of threat and our goal becomes to take them down before they take us down. We demonize the other and see them only as the enemy.

The challenge is that it doesn't work to make us safer.

And this is especially true in the Middle East, which has developed various hotbeds of violence. There is a legacy of disrespect, harm, and destruction. Fear and mistrust are rampant. A culture of retribution and intimidation has grown from ancient hostilities. That is certainly not true of every individual or nation but it's true in enough areas that the region has become like a very heated and nasty domestic squabble: people's defenses are up and they are trying to self-protect by hurting others first.

When the United States takes a lead role in bombing campaigns against ISIS and the threat of ground action in Syria and Iraq, we stir up the hot zones of violence in a way that will tend to escalate the violence and turn more of it against ourselves.

In other words, additional violence will increase the defensiveness and stoke the fires of violence still further, partially because the main actors have their own grievances with us.

By choosing sides and trying to fund, support, and empower "our" allies to win, we also tend to escalate the situation, just as if we jumped into a domestic fight and tried to get one actor to win versus working to stop the fight altogether.

In a particularly powerful CNN article that highlights one "relapsed" terrorist who had once been heralded as a model of reform, Ken Ballen makes the persuasive case that the only real solution to the violence we're witnessing through ISIS is for leaders within the Islamic religion itself to diminish the attractiveness of violent warfare for religious purists, thereby winning the hearts and minds of Muslims with a vision for peace as the most authentic expression of Islam.

This work is well underway with initiatives like the Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi .

We are better served to be supporting that kind of work rather than focusing our efforts on trying to destroy ISIS or kill off terrorists, who simply keep multiplying through the addition of more violence into an already dangerous situation.

Walking the path to healing in the Middle East means that the United States needs to move beyond trying to eliminate the "bad guys" (and ever-evolving task) to becoming a healer. That means that we need to invest more of our time, energy, and focus in building healthy nations, healing legacy wounds, and defusing the ticking time bombs of animosity and hatred.

The first weeks of the bombing campaign alone cost $1 billion dollars. What if we had built 100 field hospitals instead with that money, each of which could offer medical assistance and trauma treatment for those who have suffered the wounds of warfare? That would have been a far better investment in a future of peace as perhaps millions of people could receive healing over time.

Obviously that couldn't happen in the most heated war zones but there are enough places where it could happen that the long-term threat could be diminished.

What if we simply stopped inflaming the situation with acts of war and focused on healing broken relationships such as we've had with Iran, or atoned for mistakes made in the Iraq war, or funded media efforts by Islamic clerics who are taking a stand for peace?

What if we saw ourselves primarily as supports to the governments of the nations to help their peoples - including governments that we have seen as enemies?

What if we each made it a point to befriend someone from an Islamic country via the Internet?

All of these would be more healing than piling violence on top of violence, grievance on top of grievance. When we choose sides and try to kill the side we don't like, we lose credibility as a helpful actor in long-tangled situations.

At the deepest level, we need a de-escalation of the culture of violence and that will not happen through more war but by the careful, methodical work of peacebuilding.

Walking the path of the healer requires a fundamental shift of identity for the United States, from seeing ourselves primarily as the most powerful military that needs to take out bad actors to shifting more of our time, focus, and money to becoming the most generous healer, working to transform situations peacefully.

That would mean shifting our priorities, opening real dialogue with those we've long polarized against, such as Iran, which in itself could mitigate the danger of a far more dangerous war.

In short, I believe that the most helpful role in long-festering Middle East situations is to enter as a peacebuilder and a healer, working to de-escalate the violence, heal the ancient hostilities, repair the wounds, and build thriving economies.

When we go into the heart of the violence with more violence, we add gasoline to the flames.

The patient work of peacebuilding is a far more lasting and effective solution than another billion spent on bombs.

So I encourage all of us to share our voices with our Congresspeople to halt and defund the war (via the group FCNL for example) and thus accelerate the long-term work of true healing.