In the oft-admired model of a decisive lone warrior, President Obama could have ordered strikes on Syria without asking Congress. Instead, the commander in chief chose to ask lawmakers. At the least, all Americans should now reciprocate. They could suspend judgment and listen to what Mr. Obama has to say in his Tuesday evening address to the nation.
In decisions of war, bravery is needed in knowing when to be humble – in listening for one’s biases and evaluating new evidence. “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen,” said Winston Churchill.
Obama is hardly a warmonger, thus he deserves attention to his arguments for a “limited” attack on Syria’s military. He has not told other nations “if you are not with us, you are against us.” He is being a listener in chief even as he asks Americans to join him in pursuing the goal of curbing Syria’s use of chemical weapons and reestablishing a global norm.
“I’m not itching for military action ... and if there are good ideas that are worth pursuing, then I’m going to be open to them,” he told one reporter, in a statement that suggests he is the type of leader who is comfortable with his doubts.
Perhaps the president knows leadership and authority are fundamentally different. He says he has legal authority to strike Syria. But to really lead, he must also hear from diverse sources and then shape a common position that would lend support to action.
Such a search for common ground is meant not only for Americans. It extends to consulting foreign allies about a strike. “The president, and all of us, are listening carefully to all of our friends,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.
In today’s world, in which leaders find followers are more emboldened to challenge authority, real leadership lies in allowing those around you to have their voices heard. On domestic issues, such as taxes or health care, Obama often speaks of a “shared responsibility.” In warmaking, too, he wants to share political responsibility (if not legal authority) for an attack on Syrian forces.
“Each member of Congress is going to have to decide if [they] think it’s the right thing to do for America’s national security and the world’s national security,” Obama said. “Ultimately, you listen to your constituents, but you’ve got to make some decisions about what you believe is right for America.”
Tuesday’s speech should be an opportunity for Americans to ultimately listen to Obama’s case for a military strike. The strike itself would be done by old-style command-and-control management. But the decision to do it must be done by a new style of leadership, one in which leaders and followers have a conversation in which listening is as important as talking.