“We the people still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” These words, spoken by President Obama in his second inaugural address earlier this year, are beginning to ring hollow in light of the drumbeat toward an inevitable military strike against Syria. At the time, and in a subsequent seminal address at National Defense University in May, the President was articulating the need for our nation to turn the corner from our perceptions of what must be done to protect our national security and urging a more thoughtful, strategic approach. He said,
...the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy- because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.
Where is that larger conversation today? We’re definitely not having it on Capitol Hill.
The good news? We’re at least pausing this time to have the debate and to ask ourselves whether military intervention will make things better or worse. Unlike in the days leading to the Iraq war, our awareness is at least raised to the point where we have to wonder what the unintended outcomes of military intervention would be, and whether we will in fact make matters worse by intervening.
The bad news? We’re still caught between false choices, just as we were in previous conflicts. There seem to be only two options on the table: to strike or do nothing. Do we strike and hope that sends a message to Assad and other regimes that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons? Or do we not strike and risk Assad and others seeing inaction as a carte blanche to do the same, or worse, again?
But I can’t help but wonder why no one seems to be asking other, urgent questions: What must we do in the short and long-term to ensure that civil societies are strong enough to prevent the ascension to power of those who would use violence against their own people? How can we help foster the skills of critical citizenship throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East, so that individuals can become “capable of negotiating multiple conflicting interests in a process of creatively co-constructing a better future” as prescribed by Maha Bali, a Cairo-based writer featured in Al Fanar, an editorially independent publication covering higher education in the Arab region? In our country, how can we develop greater understanding of the interests and aspirations of other nations and peoples so that we can constructively engage in dialogue? How might we join our voices with others in our own society who see America’s future as connected to the future of other countries?
We tend not to ask ourselves these questions. The answers are complex, and uncertain. But so are the answers to the question of “to strike or do nothing?” America is at its best when we use our creativity and compassion to solve the world’s most challenging problems. Even if a military strike seems inevitable, let us at least use this moment to imagine the possibility of working toward a time when our choices won’t be limited to the unappealing options of military intervention or doing nothing, but instead will include a range of options that have been nurtured over time through stronger investments in education, development, diplomacy, peace-building, conflict mediation, and common interests.
Jill Welch is deputy executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. NAFSA is working with The Alliance for Peacebuilding, The Peace Alliance, and 3P Human Security to prompt the nation and its policymakers to confront the question of whether the United States is in fact more secure in a world of permanent war. The project encourages policymakers to more effectively use the tools of peace, including international education, to ensure security.