Congress returns to Washington this week after their five week summer recess. There are a short eight days scheduled for votes this month, the final month of the federal government's fiscal year.
By design, Congress left town knowing there were votes they would have to take during September to fund the government through a budget or more likely, a continuing resolution. They also find themselves with the expiration of yet another temporary farm bill. On what terms the debt ceiling will be increased will also weave into current debates. That's a full plate for any month.
And yet, many members of Congress actually returned to Washington a week early. There is serious work to be done besides the petty squabbling and posturing that has become more Kabuki Theater than governing when Congress faces a deadline.
The President has asked Congress to approve military action in the Middle East. As a result, many of the routine partisan talking points that were to be dusted off for yet another budget battle have been shelved. Congress is instead having a rather unfamiliar public and private debate over what it should do, and more importantly, what is America's role on the world stage.
Cynical observers of modern politics are no doubt enjoying watching a President who was "elected to end wars" asking for military action because a dictator has chemical weapons. They are no doubt also enjoying those who refused to hear of any reason to slow a march to war a decade ago now find that the Commander in Chief suddenly doesn't have the authority to do much of anything.
Yes, sadly, for some there is only one game in Washington and that is one of partisan politics. And yet, watching most in Washington who have remained officially undecided there does appear to be the appearance of genuine reflection on what their personal vote will be, and most importantly, why.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this debate from a purely political standpoint is that those who are diametrically opposed to each other on a philosophical scale on many issues have aligned themselves both for and against the resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria. The final vote will not be along party lines for either party.
As such, we are witnessing what we have not seen out of Washington in quite a while - an actual mutual attempt at governing. While Washington remains a hyper-partisan arena where raw politics is never far below the surface, it should not be lost that many appear to be approaching this very significant, very delicate issue in search of the best answer.
Like most truly complex problems there does not appear to be a "right" answer, only choices that will all result in less than optimal results with many far-reaching consequences, with too many of them unknown. With so many variables and an uncertain outcome, it is natural - even desired - that Congress remain hesitant to approve a plan to move forward.
For his part, the President was scheduled to address the nation Tuesday evening to lay out his vision and reasoning for limited strikes. The country should look for the as yet unanswered question of what victory will look like.
When President George H. W. Bush led a true international coalition into operation Desert Storm, the mission was clear. Kuwait was liberated and secured, and then the fighting stopped.
The success of that mission made public acceptance of action in Iraq and Afghanistan much easier a decade later. The ease, unfortunately, left the question of victory too vague. The question still appears unsettled today.
Just as the success of Desert Storm made Iraq and Afghanistan easier, the difficulties in finding victory in those operations are making the decision to move forward in Syria more difficult. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
We are told that there will only be air strikes, with no "boots on the ground." Our goal is to weaken a leader in the midst of a civil war, but not to have "regime change."
And yet, weakening a leader already opposed by his own people who come from multiple feuding factions also poses the risk of a deepening conflict. If the country spirals into anarchy, are we not exacerbating the problem of outside influence that we are already using as a justification for these strikes? If so, what is the plan and what are the assurances that Americans and our soldiers will not become mired in this problem as it devolves, too?
The problem is complex, and the open questions remain real. The answers remain too vague. Before there is military action, the answers need to be clear. If they are not, this is an action that our country does not need to take.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.