Category Archives: International Affairs
U.S. troops will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan this spring, ahead of schedule.
When one reporter asked if our accomplishments in this war had been worth all the bloodshed, Obama recalled the reason we intervened in Afghanistan in the first place—the 3,000 Americans killed on Sept. 11, 2001, as a result of an attack that al-Qaida had planned on Afghan soil. Our “central goal” ever since, he said, has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida while also bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. Mission accomplished.
But this answer was misleading. It sidestepped the fact that, at the end of 2009, Obama sent an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, a surge of nearly 50 percent above the 68,000 already there—and that he did so not to go after bin Laden and al-Qaida (a task that could have been handled with far fewer forces) but rather to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy, at least in the cities, particularly in the southern districts. This strategy involved not only killing and capturing bad guys but also helping to reform the Afghan government and providing the people with basic services—in short, nation-building.
What Obama didn’t mention is that this surge and this strategy were not a success.
Redefining the reasons for fighting a war is nothing new in American history. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln redefined the Civil War as a campaign for the liberation of black slaves in the South, despite insisting up to that point that the war had little to do with slavery. After the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq President Bush increasingly described the Iraq War as a campaign to free the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator and enable them to establish democratic self-government.
In this case, I suspect most Americans are perfectly fine with Obama’s assessment that the nation-building experiment in Afghanistan has failed. To be sure, there are those on the right and the left who will insist that this is a major mistake, that if we leave Afghanistan to the Taliban we will only have to go back there again in a few years. But aside from all of the obvious problems with nation-building and counter-insurgency, Afghanistan is not the only failed state in the world (think Somalia, Mali, and increasingly Syria). It is by no means clear that America has the power to fix one of these countries, let alone all of them.
But as more isolationist minded Americans have long pointed out (including President Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign), just because there is a problem doesn’t mean that problem has a solution, let alone one that our country is capable of solving. In the end, America needs to reduce its involvement in Afghanistan not because we should return to the sorts of isolationist foreign policies that led to disaster in the 1930s and 1940s, but because we need to preserve our strength – moral, economic, military, political – for the sorts of efforts that matter most, and that actually have a chance of success. We survived the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 despite the worst prognosticators’ predictions about the domino theory. We will survive this withdrawal as well.
Whatever we might say about the particular failures of leadership and strategy that lie behind the American conduct of the Afghanistan War, or behind Obama’s withdrawal of America from that war, I think most of us will be relieved to (mostly*) turn the last page of this chapter in our history.
* It is likely that 10,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan to assist the country in its continued struggle against Al Qaeda.
When asked to rank the greatest occupants of the White House, Americans consistently place John F. Kennedy among the top five, if not the top two or three, presidents in American history. Professional historians, on the other hand, while recognizing Kennedy’s popularity, generally judge him to have been an above average president at best, but by no means comparable to the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Why the gap in evaluation? In part it’s because historians recognize that while Jack Kennedy masterfully communicated to the public the image of a healthy, youthful, and brilliant family man, husband of the glamorous Jackie Kennedy, father of two, and master of foreign affairs, the reality was quite different.
To be sure, Kennedy masterfully handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to a catastrophic nuclear exchange, resisting the war-mongering of the Joint Chiefs while nevertheless convincing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that if the Russians did not withdraw their missiles from Cuba there would indeed be war. He exploited the capital earned from that successful showdown by engineering the first ever nuclear weapons agreement with the Soviet Union, a nuclear test ban that made future detente a genuine possibility. And had he not been assassinated fifty years ago in 1963, he almost certainly would have avoided the escalation of the Vietnam War that occurred under his successor Lyndon Johnson.
Photo: Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961
On the other hand, the president who founded the Peace Corps and launched the project that eventually put a man on the moon was in no small part responsible for the escalation of Cold War tensions in the first place. His scandalous botching of the invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco significantly reduced America’s moral image in Latin America and in the broader world, giving the Soviet Union moral cover for its own aggressive subversion in third world countries and pushing Fidel Castro’s new regime into the open arms of the Russians. His sending of nearly 17,000 “advisers” to Vietnam set the stage for Johnson’s escalation of that war, and his encouragement of the South Vietnamese generals in their coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem made him partially responsible for the brutal assassination of Diem only a few weeks before his own death from an assassin.
On the domestic front Kennedy was full of great ideas but he successfully enacted none of them. The first genuinely Keynesian president, he introduced the idea later associated with Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party that cutting taxes would actually increase revenue by bolstering the economy. He advocated health insurance for the elderly, federal funding for education, and a cabinet position for housing. He was much more encouraging of the civil rights movement than Eisenhower had been, eventually using his executive authority to ban discrimination in federal housing and calling for a civil rights law to protect African American voting rights.
On the other hand, Kennedy’s leadership on civil rights was nearly as indecisive, calculated, and cautious as had been that of Eisenhower before him, and Kennedy failed to persuade the Democratic controlled Congress to pass even one of his major initiatives. All of them would be enacted during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the “Master of the Senate”, in 1964-1966 (though in part due to Johnson’s success in exploiting grief over Kennedy’s death). In fact, at Kennedy’s funeral the famous French general and statesman Charles De Gaulle apparently declared that while Kennedy was America’s mask, Johnson was the country’s real face.
Photo: Marilyn Monroe, only the most famous object of Kennedy’s obsessive womanizing, aborted what was probably Jack’s child, shortly before her death.
In his masterful biography of Kennedy Robert Dallek demonstrates just how successfully Kennedy worked to foster an image of health, morality, and honesty to cover a reality that was quite different. Throughout his life Kennedy’s body was wracked with near-debilitating ailments, pains, and degenerative diseases that were successfully kept from public view. Had he run for office a few decades later, he would never have been deemed eligible, let alone elected. The husband of Jackie Kennedy was an obsessive philanderer and womanizer, once declaring to the British Prime Minister that if he went without a woman for three days he got a headache. Not only did his womanizing get him tied up with the mafia, but it led to a near scandal when Kennedy became sexually involved with a young woman invited to nude pool parties at the White House, a woman suspected of being an East German spy. With help from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover Kennedy quashed a potential Senate investigation, while Attorney General Robert Kennedy had the young woman deported and paid off.
The deception, which was not unique to Kennedy’s administration but which was uniquely mastered by the man to whom the press was so friendly, extended to Kennedy’s handling of Vietnam. In contrast to presidents like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, Kennedy sought to minimize public awareness of U.S. involvement in a foreign war, fearing that democratic deliberation on the conflict would tie his presidential hands. He and Bobby Kennedy worked hard to arm twist the press into providing coverage cooperative to the administration’s aims, an abuse of the free press that helped to make it so cynical of later American presidential leadership and its handling of the Vietnam War.
Photo: Kennedy with his wife Jackie and daughter Caroline
Americans still love the Kennedys, especially the one who occupied the White House for those three years, deceptively described by Jackie Kennedy as the recreation of King Arthur’s Camelot. Yet the immorality and the idealism, the tragedies and the achievements highlight the age-old complexities of politics as it has always been conducted under the sun. God steers nations according to his mysterious will, using fallible instruments for his own purposes. In the final analysis, the country was probably in better shape when a rifle shot took the life of Jack Kennedy than it would be following the work of at least the next four occupants of that high office. Things aren’t always as they seem, and events rarely follow the course we might expect. That won’t change in the coming years.
[I'm traveling for the holidays today, and in the next week and a half blogging will be somewhat more sporadic and brief than usual. I do hope to get up a few posts, however, the first of which is the following on Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and American wars. Things should be back to normal in January.]
I recently finished reading biographies of two presidents – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower – both of whose legacy was to a significant degree shaped by their foreign policies. In Roosevelt’s case, whatever the controversial legacy of the New Deal may be, the successful oversight of what is largely regarded as the greatest and most just war in human history cements his place in history as one of America’s greatest presidents. As for Eisenhower, although his eight years in the White House can be criticized on many points, he merits significant praise for navigating America through eight years of peace and prosperity, years book-ended before and after by bloody military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
Judging the morality of any given military conflict is a notoriously complicated task. Although it’s easy for armchair ethicists to judge wars once they have been fought and won (or lost), in the heat and passion of most conflicts, very few people have the wherewithal to make level-headed evaluations. For example, for most amateur students of history it is difficult to fathom why so many Americans believed the nation’s cause was so righteous – and why they were convinced so much was there to be won – in the First World War. The same is true of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and to a certain extent of the Mexican War in 1846-1848. It is increasingly the case with the Iraq War, launched by President George W. Bush in 2003.
One of the things that really strikes me about the presidencies of Roosevelt and Eisenhower was just how seriously these men took decisions whether or not to go to war, and how hard they worked to ensure that if the nation did go to war, the public would be solidly behind the effort. This despite the fact that during the 1940s and 1950s the United States faced threats to its security far greater – or at least far more obvious – than the country does today.
During Roosevelt’s second term in office Germany launched Europe into its second major war in little more than two decades, overrunning seven countries and crushing the combined armies of the major military powers of Britain and France in a matter of weeks. Britain had a knife at its throat and its survival was most certainly in doubt. Despite the threat to western civilization, and despite his efforts to give Britain as much material support as he could, President Roosevelt did not commit the United States to war. It’s not that he didn’t believe in the cause. The issue was that he believed the country had to be fully behind a major war, and he was determined to lead Congress by leading popular opinion. In many ways it was FDR’s policies that provoked the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and when it was all said and done, Roosevelt, like Abraham Lincoln before him, succeeded in the crucial tactical effort of having his enemies (even Germany and Italy) start a war with America, rather than the other way around. As a result, Americans were always 100% behind the war effort.
Eisenhower, likewise, faced enormous threats to the United States. In the years leading up to his presidency the country had become embroiled in a seemingly endless yet bloody war in Korea, eastern Europe had been decisively consolidated under communist control, and the great nation of China – in which many Americans had placed lofty political and religious hopes – had itself turned red. The Soviet Union and the United States were gearing up for a nuclear arms race – soon to be followed by a space race - that would leave the two countries in a state of perpetual fear and tension. Despite these threats, despite crisis after crisis, and despite the consistent urging of his highest advisors to go to war, Eisenhower led the United States through eight years of peace. He ended the Korean War, kept the military out of Eastern Europe, and avoided getting entangled in the French conflict in Vietnam. All the while he made himself clear on one crucial point: if America was going to go to war against China, or the Soviet Union, or one of their satellites, the country had to be overwhelmingly committed. The United States was not going to go to war divided or half-hearted.
I can’t help but think of the two wars of George W. Bush in relation to these earlier times. I know that historical comparisons are fraught with danger. No two situations are entirely alike, and often military and political actors make their greatest mistakes by assuming that history is repeating itself, when it is actually not. It is sometimes true that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat it, but it is also true that those who try to imitate the leaders of the past often make the present worse. So comparing Bush’s war on terror with Roosevelt’s struggle against fascism, or Eisenhower’s against communism, is certainly comparing apples and oranges.
That said, it is worth noting that when Bush led the United States into war in Afghanistan in 2001 he had the country solidly behind him. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were our generation’s Pearl Harbor, and virtually no one doubted that our troops were serving the cause of justice when they went after Osama bin Laden, and the regime that had made his terrorism possible. On the other hand, when Bush led us into war against Iraq, Americans were divided from the start. There was no great event to unify the country (the War on Terror was already beginning to run on fumes); instead we were working to wrap our minds around the new doctrine of preemptive war, desperately hoping that Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN would be as dramatic as the one he was seeking to emulate had been (during the Cuban Missile Crisis). True, no one doubted that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a threat to the United States. But was he a greater threat than Nazi Germany, regarding which Roosevelt was so patient before leading the country to war? Was he more dangerous than the Soviet Union, with whom Eisenhower maintained peace for eight solid years?
I’m not trying to offer any definitive judgments here. But it does seem to me that history affirms the wisdom of applying just war theory quite strictly. When our country is fighting a defensive war, when when we have justice on our side, we tend to be very united. We also tend to win. When matters are more complicated – you might think of Vietnam, in addition to Iraq – we do not do so well. I don’t know when the next war will be. But Iran’s continued progress towards a nuclear bomb continues to provoke talk of war, particularly preemptive war. We should make sure we keep some historical perspective, however, and not rush into anything prematurely. Roosevelt and Eisenhower both did a swell job protecting American security. Let’s hope our current leaders have the wisdom to do the same.
I’ve written a short piece over at Patheos about the relation between President Woodrow Wilson and Reformed theologians like Abraham Kuyper, J. Gresham Machen, and John Calvin. Here are the first couple paragraphs:
In a fascinating essay at Patheos, Dean Curry describes Malcolm Magee’s argument in What the World Should Be that President Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was decisively shaped by his Presbyterian Reformed theology.
“It is well known that Woodrow Wilson was a foreign policy idealist and that his approach to it was moralistic. After all, it was Wilson who famously promised that America’s participation in World War I would not be about selfish national interest—or realpolitik – but about the altruism of making the world “safe for democracy.” What is not well known about Wilson, and what Magee explains in fascinating detail, is how Wilson’s personal and political worldview was profoundly shaped by Reformed Protestant theology. Challenging the prevailing historiography of Wilson that has all but ignored Wilson’s theology, it is Magee’s thesis that Wilson was a “Presbyterian in politics, a twentieth century John Knox, a Christian statesman whose overriding motivation was his determination to do God’s work in a fallen world.”"
Curry goes on to describe Wilson’s relationship with his father, a very prominent Southern Presbyterian pastor, and the influence on Wilson’s thinking of Princeton theologians like Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield. Curry also outlines Wilson’s friendship with J. Gresham Machen, as well as similarities between Wilson’s understanding of the relation between Reformed faith and politics, and that of Abraham Kuyper.
Read the rest, including my judgment of Wilson’s connection to Calvin’s thought, here.
The Washington Post reports that the governing Islamist party of Tunisia has also condemned the attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the Muslim world. The attack on the embassy in Tunis resulted in the deaths of a few protestors and apparently in the placing of an al Qaeda flag where the American flag had once flown.
According to the Post:
Tunisia is now run by the once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda, which has vowed to protect the rights of women and free worship, while building a robust democracy. But the moderate government has since struggled to quell protests by increasingly vocal ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis.
The youth wing of Ennahda said in a statement emailed early Saturday that both the film that incited the protests and the violence should be condemned.
The party’s statement accused “enemies of the revolution” of turning peaceful demonstrations into destructive mobs and manipulating anger over the film to divide the country and prevent Tunisia from building a robust democracy.
“We call on the youth and on all Tunisians to maintain vigilance and unity in order to prevent all attempts at sowing divisions and halting the revolution,” the statement said.
What’s wrong with the Muslim world? What kind of religion teaches its adherents that vitriol and violence is the appropriate response to blasphemy? And why does the United States continue to maintain its active presence in the Middle East, let alone to work hard to win the respect of Muslims around the world?
FOR many Americans the killing of Christopher Stevens, their ambassador to Libya, this week crystallised everything they have come to expect from the Arab world. In a country where the West only last year helped depose a murderous tyrant, a Salafist mob attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Mr Stevens and three colleagues. The trigger for this murder, the riots in neighbouring Egypt and the storming of the American embassy in Yemen? A tacky amateur video about the Prophet Muhammad that the Obama administration had already condemned.
But of course, this is not the complete picture. While a number of extremist Muslims were involved in violence or in exciting violence, many others worked hard to prevent it. A piece in Slate points out,
Hillary Clinton reported this morning, in her most eloquent news conference as secretary of state, that Libyan citizens and security forces had tried to fight off the small mob of militants who set fire to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and that, afterward, they’d sheltered many survivors and carried the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, to a nearby hospital….
Similarly, Clinton said, Egyptian security forces helped American guards stave off those who stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo before much damage was done. Though she didn’t mention it, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, must know that his country’s fortunes, and thus his own political prospects, depend on foreign aid and investment….
[W]hat we’re seeing is, potentially, a conflict not only between the West and radical Islam but also between elements within Islam… [I]n the long run, it’s important for President Morsi, Libya’s leaders, and at least a few other prominent Muslim spokesmen throughout the region to denounce the most violent of these protesters—and to denounce the very tactic of assaulting embassies and killing diplomats as an antiquated practice that violates their principles and has no place in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.
In another piece The Economist reminds suspicious westerners that the violence they are witnessing in the Middle East is not simply spontaneous, Islamic-inspired practice. Rather, it is carefully orchestrated by extremist Islamists who represent only a minority of Muslims but who are working hard to grow that minority.
Muslims’ resentment at slights to their religion is readily aroused by reports of desecration of the Koran or books, films and pictures that include a blasphemous (ie, any) depiction of the Prophet Muhammad or of God. Yet outbursts of rage can also be stirred by political grandstanding and mischievous politicians preying on an ill-informed and aggrieved populace.
It is certainly odd, for example, that the latest film suddenly began attracting attention in the run-up to September 11th, an anniversary almost as politically charged in the Muslim world as it is in the West. It was energetically publicised (albeit in caustic terms) by two Salafist (hardline Islamist) television channels.
Most outbursts of Muslim rage bring political dividends to someone. The Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, reaped the benefits of his fatwa demanding the death sentence on Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses”, published in 1988. Pakistani politicians gain from whipping up sentiment against Christians—and against politicians seen as soft on them.
But why is it so easy for these demagogues to turn ordinary Muslims against the West? Isn’t that simply the result of Islam? Certainly there are aspects of Islam that render it subject to manipulation and abuse, and the religion cannot be whitewashed of those parts of its history that prominently featured conquest, violence, and intolerance. Muslim scholars need to continue to wrestle with how the Islamic faith can be faithfully practiced in a democratic and pluralistic world. But Islam is no more reducible to violence and intolerance than is any other human religion, and there is much more that makes Muslims vulnerable to manipulation than religious orthodoxy.
Ignorance of the way the West works in many Muslim countries makes rabble-rousing easy. Protesters at the American embassy in Cairo on September 11th erroneously believed the offensive film to have been shown on “American state television”: in a place with a weak tradition of independent broadcasting, that claim is not as absurd as it might be elsewhere….
A reluctance among many Muslims to accept that America could be a blundering victim of atrocities rather than a wily perpetrator meant that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers were widely reported from the outset as an inside job, facilitated by Israel’s intelligence service, to stoke up Western hatred of Islam. Three-quarters of Egyptians now believe that conspiracy theory.
There is a lot of miscommunication going on, and Americans need to appreciate that fact. The average Arab in the Middle East does not understand America the way my Muslim neighbors down the street do. And just as America has successfully won over millions of Muslims in this country to the values of democracy and pluralism, the same may yet occur in the Middle East. Yes there are countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. But there are also examples of tremendous progress like Turkey. Yes there are Muslims like Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But there are also Muslims like my neighbors down the street who have warmly welcomed my family into their homes, attended my children’s birthday parties, and even babysat for us.
Like most Americans and like most Muslims living in the Middle East, what these people aspire to is a life of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Amid all the furor and the violence, when all the attention is on demagogues, terrorists, and extremists, we should not forget them.
Keen to portray the uprising as a sectarian insurrection by extreme elements of the Sunni Muslim majority posing a vicious threat to minorities, Mr Assad has often wheeled out bishops and nuns to express devotion to his regime and to condemn supposed foreign interference. Yet they do not carry their flocks with them.
Amounting to about 10% of the country’s 23m people, Syria’s Christians increasingly, if still often privately, express sympathy for the opposition. In battered cities, behind closed doors in living rooms cluttered with statues of the Virgin Mary, many grumble about the bloody crackdown. Christians and Muslims often attend funerals together for the victims of government violence, such as Basil Shehadeh, a young Christian film-maker recently killed in Homs, Syria’s third city. Christians are well represented in the political opposition. The Syrian National Council, a group mainly of exiles, includes several. The “local co-ordination committees”, as activists’ cells are known, contain numerous Christians. A church-based group ferries medicine around the country to help the victims of repression.
Of course, this does not mean Syrian Christians are unaware of the dangers of an Islamist regime.
On social networks Christians send each other cartoons of women draped in the veil and men with bushy beards as harbingers of the new Syria. “I’d rather have this regime than chaos or Islamists,” says a teacher in Bab Touma, a Christian quarter of Damascus, proudly pointing to his scantily clad female family members.
While the revolutions going on in the Middle East certainly increase religious freedom for Muslims, the same is not always the case for Christians. Muslim men in Egypt can now sport beards and Muslim women are beginning to wear burqas, but Christians are worried. As events in Tunisia make clear, freedom of expression for Muslims is often accompanied by the repression of those not committed to Islamic standards of modesty or blasphemy.
The best way forward is for the Arab world to figure out a way to respect pluralism and religious liberty while avoiding the pitfalls of both radical secularism and radical Islamism. Christians in the west have long made the distinction between morality (and religion) and politics, while never entirely separating the two. And the reality is that even most Muslims who live in the United States have adapted to the American version of secularity. The question remains, will majority Muslim countries find a way to do the same?
The Economist is running an excellent article on China’s one-child policy. The article focuses on the human cost of the policy, as well as on the haphazard and unequal way in which it is enforced. The tragedy of the policy in China is all the greater when demographic and social costs – which the article does not address – are taken into account. But often it is the personal stories that wake people up and change regimes. The Economist focuses on the following story:
IN THE photographs the young mother lies on a clinic bed, her hair obscuring her face. She appears as inert as the baby lying beside her. But 23-year-old Feng Jianmei is still alive, whereas her baby girl is not. The baby was killed while still in the womb by an injection arranged by local family-planning officials. They restrained Ms Feng, who was seven months pregnant, and then induced her to give birth to the dead baby.
Of course, in certain circumstances the Chinese can agree to pay a large fine and agree to certain social costs (such as the forfeiting of the child’s right to education) rather than kill their unborn children. But many Chinese cannot afford such costs.
For Ms Feng, living in a rural area, the fine was lower—40,000 yuan. She was given the option to pay and keep the baby, but could not afford it. Her husband, Deng Jiyuan, earns 4,000 yuan ($630) a month at the local hydroelectric power station, but needed more to pay the fine. So on May 30th he set off for the coal mines of Inner Mongolia to boost his income. It was then that family-planning officials swooped.
At first a dozen officials tried to force Ms Feng into a car. She fled to an aunt’s house, but they broke through the gate, so she escaped to the mountains nearby, where she hid under a bed in the house of a friend. “They laughed when they found her,” says Mr Deng. An official forced her to sign a form (in theory, consent is needed) and after an injection into her belly Ms Feng gave birth to the dead baby 30 hours later.
Apparently a provincial government has apologized to Ms Feng for the way in which the case was handled, but one can only imagine that in a nation of well over a billion people this story is not entirely unique. In any case, the problem is with the policy, not with its enforcement. The definition of tyranny is when a state uses its power to advance its own (conceived) ends rather than the welfare of its people. There are few better examples of tyranny than forced abortion.
According to the Westminster Confession of Faith (the revised American version, not the original), civil governments have a duty to protect all denominations of Christians.
as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.
Presumably this requirement is consistent with the idea that government should protect the liberty of all people, whether religious or not, and there is no need for it to be interpreted as favoring Christians over those of other faiths. But there are clearly still some among us who insist that civil government is part of Christ’s kingdom and that therefore it is responsible to advance that kingdom in one way or another. At the very least this would seem to require supporting a regime that protects Christians over revolutionaries who would not protect them. Right?
Enter Case Study 1: Syria. The Economist tells us what happened in Syria exactly one week ago:
EYE-WITNESS testimony leaves little doubt about what happened on May 25th in Houla, a small farming town on Syria’s western plain. Two hours after the noon prayer, tank and mortar fire from nearby Syrian army positions began to rain down on Houla and an outlying hamlet called Taldou, perhaps in response to an attack by rebel forces on an army checkpoint. Just before sunset armed men, some in combat uniform and others in civilian clothes, swarmed in from neighbouring villages. Moving from house to house in Taldou, they herded families into single rooms and systematically gunned and hacked them down, sparing not a soul. Another wave of invaders arrived later at night, some in armoured vehicles, and continued the slaughter.
UN observers who surveyed the scene the next day counted 108 dead, including 49 children. The massacre was one of the bloodiest yet in a civil war that has cost an estimated 12,000 lives since unrest started in March last year. But similar assaults, on a smaller scale and often carried out by the shabiha, as the government’s paramilitary thugs are known, have been taking place across swathes of the stricken country.
This is a horrible story, and there is little reason to be comforted that things are going to change anytime soon. The Assad regime is butchering its own people. The instability is spilling over into Lebanon and threatening to plunge that country into civil war as well. The “protestors” in Syria are associated with the “democratic” movements that have spread across the Middle East in the Arab Spring, most notably in Egypt. Syria’s ally is Iran, the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, and Syria’s strongest non-Muslim supporter is the Russia of authoritarian Vladimir Putin. Seems obvious what should happen right? The international community, for the sake of its own protection, needs to find a way to bring down the Assad regime, and replace it with something more peaceable, stable, and democratic.
Not so says the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the New York Times:
It is clear by now that Russia’s government has dug in against outside intervention in Syria, its longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East. Less well known is the position taken by the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears that Christian minorities, many of them Orthodox, will be swept away by a wave of Islamic fundamentalism unleashed by the Arab Spring.
This argument for supporting sitting leaders has reached a peak around Syria, whose minority population of Christians, about 10 percent, has been reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition against Mr. Assad, fearing persecution at those same hands if he were to fall. If the church’s advocacy cannot be said to guide Russia’s policy, it is one of the factors that make compromise with the West so elusive, especially at a time of domestic political uncertainty for the Kremlin.
When Putin came to power in Russia a few months ago the Orthodox Church had just one request.
The issue of “Christianophobia” shot to the top of the church’s agenda a year ago, with a statement warning that “they are killing our brothers and sisters, driving them from their homes, separating them from their near and dear, stripping them of the right to confess their religious beliefs.” The metropolitan asked Mr. Putin to promise to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East.
The request was one that plunged deep into geopolitics, since Christian minorities are aligned with several of the governments that have faced popular uprisings. The statements on “Christianophobia” amount to a denunciation of Western intervention, especially in Egypt and Iraq, which lost two-thirds of its 1.5 million Christians after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
As one Syrian Christian living in Russia argued, Russia may not exactly have pure motives in its handling of the Syria crisis, but the West has hardly demonstrated much concern for Christians in the Middle East either.
“The West is pursuing its own interests; they are indifferent to our fate,” he said. “I am not justifying the Assad regime — it is dictatorial, we know this, it is despotic, I understand. But these guys, they don’t even hide their intention to build an Islamic state and their methods of battle, where they just execute people on the streets. That’s the opposition, not just the authorities. And we are between two fires.”
So what does the lordship of Christ over all authorities and powers demand here? It is not as if intervention in Syria will bring about any straightforward solution. None of the options on the table look very attractive. But for Christians uncertain about the secular purpose of government – wondering whether or not it is part of Christ’s kingdom or is bound to demonstrate its support for Christians above all else – this dilemma is all the more tortuous.
Of course, we’ve been here before. The 16th and 17th Centuries are full of stories of churches and Christians who compromised justice or peace in the name of protecting (or establishing) a certain form of Christianity. Judging by centuries of Christian decline in Europe, however, sacrificing justice for the sake of an alliance between religion and power hardly does the gospel much good. Whatever we may think about the implications of Christ’s lordship over all of life, assuming that that lordship corresponds to the government’s promotion of Christianity is not the way to go. There is no easy way to fix Syria, but I cannot help but think that distinguishing between two kingdoms, and recognizing that Christians should suffer wrong at the hands of government rather than be allied with injustice, is a helpful place to start.