Category Archives: Barack Obama

The Hypocrisy of the Christian Right

Never has the hypocrisy of the leaders of the Christian Right been on greater display. I think Pope Francis’s comments implicitly questioning the faith of Donald Trump were impetuous and misguided (and I think they have been misrepresented by the media somewhat as well). The pope has no business making off-the-cuff judgments about the faith of particular American presidential candidates based on their policy proposals.

But the rush of evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Franklin Graham to defend Trump’s faith makes me want to gag. We can be sure they will regret it, far more than Jerry Falwell, Sr., regretted defending segregation, and far more than Billy Graham regretted his warm alliance with Richard Nixon.

Do not forget that Franklin Graham openly speculated that Barack Obama – who in my view has made a far more credible profession of faith than Donald Trump – is a Muslim. These are men who – like their fathers – have attached themselves at the hip to the Republican Party, dismissing various Democratic presidential candidates as godless liberals determined to wreck Christian America. And yet they are thoroughly enamored – Falwell is outright seduced – by a man far more likely to wreck this country than any Democratic candidate in recent years.

Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is no conservative. And while he is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), he has openly bragged about his adulterous affairs, routinely slanders his opponents, and demagogically panders to the worst prejudices in an angry American public. Even more dangerous, he has routinely declared his intention to rule by executive order without regard to constitutional processes, as Senator Ben Sasse has vigorously pointed out. If you think President Obama’s unilateralism has threatened the constitutional order, get ready for far worse with a Republican President Donald Trump.

The blindness of many among the Christian Right is on display as they rush toward Trump as their savior while failing to grasp that he poses a far greater danger to the United States than any candidate in the Democratic Party (just read this comment thread). I sincerely hope Republicans can rally around an alternative before it is too late.

Pope Francis and the Need for Christian Political Liberalism

Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.

This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”

Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”

There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,

Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.

The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.

[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.

Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”

Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”

Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.

To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”

These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.

I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.

Hiroshima, 70 Years Later: My Country Right or Wrong?

Today is the seventieth anniversary of Hiroshima. On this day, seventy years ago, the United States used an atomic bomb in warfare for the first time in history. Another would follow, dropped on Nagasaki three days later. It is no exaggeration to say that since that time the world has been fixated on making sure that no nuclear weapon is ever used again. At this very time the American Congress debates whether or not to support President Obama’s recent agreement with Iran, designed to prevent Iran from attaining the capability the United States already used against Japan a lifetime ago.

The single bomb used on this day, August 6, was not used against a military target. It was dropped on an urban area, a major population center with hundreds of thousands of civilians, including the elderly, women, and children. Some 85,000 people were killed either instantly or within the first day. Many, many more died in the days and months following. Within four months the death toll reached as high as 165,000, the vast majority of whom were civilians. For the survivors, that was just the beginning of the ordeal.

As one who experienced it writes today,

As a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb.

Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 kilometers from Ground Zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help. As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the centre of the city. Grotesquely wounded people, whose clothes were tattered, or who were made naked by the blast. They were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with their intestines hanging out….

Of a population of 360,000 — largely non-combatant women, children and elderly — most became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. As of now, over 250,000 victims have perished in Hiroshima from the effects of the blast, heat and radiation. 70 years later, people are still dying from the delayed effects of one atomic bomb, considered crude by today’s standard for mass destruction.

Many Americans are as convinced that the United States was right in using the atomic bomb against Japan as they are that the United States has the right to bomb Iran in order to prevent it from developing the same capability. The two situations are hardly the same, of course, and there are sophisticated arguments in defense of each position. But quite often, I fear, the opinion stems from little more than an instinct that amounts to “My country, right or wrong.”

In fact, both arguments – that the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and that the United States is justified in bombing Iran should it develop nuclear weapons today – are flatly contradictory to classic Christian just war theory. This is hard for patriotic American Christians to admit, but it is no less clear for that.

During the 1940s, it is true, Japan was a dangerous, imperialistic aggressor that had rashly launched the United States, Asia, and the Pacific into World War II. Millions of innocent people paid for Japan’s imperialism with their lives, and many more suffered unspeakably. The U.S. government accurately reasoned that thousands of American soldiers would have to die to bring the Empire of the Sun to its knees. Given this scenario it is understandable that President Truman decided that it was better for many more Japanese people to die than for more American soldiers to die. But that does not make it right, nor does it lessen the horror of what America did.

It was a decision that emerged within the context of the Allied strategy used against both Germany and Japan during the final years of the war. Major cities were targeted because they contained hundreds of thousands of civilians. They were carpet bombed and firebombed. The Allied strategy was not only to destroy the Axis powers’ military and industrial capacity; it was to terrorize their populations into refusing to support the war effort. The culmination of a long road of military reasoning that began with General William Tecumseh Sherman’s determination to make the people of Georgia know that “War is hell,” it was a blatant violation of the just war principle that says that innocent civilians are never to be targeted with lethal force in military operations. It was rationalized by the assumption that it was justified by in the context of civilization-threatening Total War.

The Cold War showed us just where this attitude toward Total War could lead; the attitude itself threatens civilization. In recent decades America’s approach to war has shifted accordingly. The United States military worked hard not to target civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the motivation for the invasion of Iraq and the potential use of military force against Iran are driven by the determination to secure the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But the irony is that this determination has led to a new violation of just war theory, a violation of the principle that war is only to be waged when necessary to defend a nation from an aggressor that is already in the act of waging war or some commensurate injustice. This violation is rationalized based on the principle, first clearly articulated by President Bush’s administration, that preemptive war is sometimes necessary to prevent an aggressor from waging war before it begins. Once again, it is assumed that this course of action is necessary in order to preserve civilization from otherwise imminent destruction.

My point is not to reduce our memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to its relevance for present day policy (though we can’t afford to ignore its lessons). These events – and the people who suffered from them – should be commemorated in their own right. But one of the appropriate ways to commemorate them is to reflect on the consequences of human sin – the sheer depths of evil to which nations can fall even when they are acting according to what they deem the purist motives and the obliterating destruction with which humanity is now threatened on a permanent basis.

Does God see it? Does God care about this and other injustices? How long, O Lord? The answer to the problem of evil remains unsolved, but God has made it clear what side he is on. He hears the oppressed and he answers their cry. He judges evil, though not ultimately in the way that we might expect. To paraphrase Ellie Wiesel, where was God at Auschwitz? He was on the gallows. Where was God at Hiroshima? He was among the charred remains, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

One hundred and sixty-five thousand human beings, each with their families, their stories, their hopes, their struggles. One bomb. And that’s what the good guys did. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t forget it. How long O Lord?

Should Christians Be Offended By Obama’s Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast?

At the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday President Obama spoke at length about the ways in which religion is so often hijacked in the name of violence and injustice. Most of the examples Obama cited were of actions committed by Muslims and in the name of Islam. But Obama paused, for just a few sentences, to remind his mostly Christian audience not to be too self-righteous.

And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion.

Conservative critics pounced.

Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia, claimed that the president’s comments were the most offensive he’d heard from a president in his life. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

Conservative columnist Charlie Krauthammer declared himself “stunned” that the president could say something so “banal and offensive.”

Here we are from an act shocking barbarism, the burning alive of a prisoner of war, and Obama’s message is that we should remember the Crusades and the Inquisition. I mean, for him to say that all of us have sinned, all religions have transgressed — it was adolescent stuff. Everyone knows that. What’s important is what’s happening now. Christianity no longer goes on Crusades. It gave up the Inquisition a while ago. the Book of Joshua is knee deep in blood. That story is over too.

And none other than the usually clear-headed Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claimed that Obama’s comments were “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”

“The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

Really? The crusades and the Inquisition were met with the “overwhelming” moral opposition of Christians? Slavery and Jim Crow were condemned by an “overwhelming” consensus among southern Christians? As an intelligent Southern Baptist, Moore knows better.

Krauthammer claims that Obama’s comments were “adolescent stuff,” but it is Krauthammer’s misrepresentation of Obama’s speech that is juvenile in its politicized self-righteousness. Krauthammer implies that Obama’s reflective comments about Christianity constituted the main message of his speech, when in reality the president was simply offering a passing word of humility about his own religion in the context of a larger point about the legitimate and illegitimate uses of religion. It was a speech overflowing with positive references toward Christianity and its teachings of love, even as it sought to identify areas of common moral ground among diverse religions.

Is it politically incorrect for conservatives humbly to acknowledge the sins of the Christian tradition in public?

Is it really true, as Gilmore claims, that “every believing Christian in the United States” is too proud to be reminded of great sins committed in the name of Christ?

If so, orthodox Christianity would be in far worse trouble than I ever imagined.

This sort of self-righteous indignation, thankfully, does not represent all Christians. Many of us do recognize the crusades, the religious persecution of heretics (vigorously defended by prominent Catholic and Protestant theologians in past centuries), and the racial oppression and violence committed toward African Americans (also justified by Christian pastors and theologians in the memory of many still alive today) to be serious distortions of Christianity that have had tragic consequences for the credibility of the gospel.

What is more, President Obama was right to remind us that many devout Muslims reject radical and violent interpretations of their faith, as those of us with Muslim friends and neighbors understand. Perhaps it should not be so offensive to Christians, in the midst of their justified anger at the injustice of Muslim terrorists, to remind themselves of their own religious sins and of the fact that they too stand only by grace.

Rather than cherry-pick the president’s comments to score political points, it would be better to highlight the words that are more representative of the overall tone of the speech:

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number….

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I pray that we will.  And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”

President Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2015

Should the United States Attack Syria?

A week ago I received a report from the International Crisis Group that began with the following warning:

Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people.

The report goes on to identify the various arguments in favor of the attack – and then to refute them.

  1. The United States wants to punish, deter, and prevent the use of chemical weapons. Response: But the use of chemical weapons account for perhaps 1% of the 100,000+ deaths the Syrian people have suffered during the past few years, many of them (but not all) at the hands of the Assad regime.
  2. The United States needs to attack in order to preserve its credibility, President Barack Obama having declared that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line that would not be tolerated. Response: such an argument would hardly persuade the skeptical Syrian people who have the most to lose from the escalation of the current war.
  3. U.S. attacks would be contained and would not lead to “boots on the ground.” Response: Rule Number One about war is that you can never predict consequences. There is no such thing as a carefully controlled war. If Syria or one of its allies retaliates, will the United States decline to defend itself? Not likely. Furthermore, if landing troops on the ground might secure chemical weapons against further use, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued before Congress, such a move must not be ruled out.

This week President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue their vigorous effort to persuade Congress (and the American people) that it should authorize an attack on Syria. President Obama is set to address the American people tomorrow. Although the administration has its supporters – including influential Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham as well as the Republican House leadership – it faces much stronger opposition from across the political spectrum. Strong arguments against an attack have been raised by individuals and groups as diverse as the New York Times Editorial Board, Slate, the Cato Institute, National Review, Pope Francis, R.R. Reno, and Jim Wallis.

If there is a Christian view of the current crisis, it may be Syria’s Christians who can best articulate it. As Mark Mouvsesian writes at First Thoughts,

This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government.

This perspective doesn’t seem particularly distinctively Christian, but it’s not clear to me that it needs to be. Civil government is by its very nature a messy business, and Syria’s Christians can hardly be blamed for taking a strong Romans 13 line on this one.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… for he is God’s servant for your good.

Richard Land, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has for some time supported American intervention in Syria. When I had the chance to ask him about it a few months ago, his argument boiled down to this: the United States can’t let Iran win in Syria.

Is that the best that just war theory can do?

To be sure, some of the arguments against intervention seem to prove too much. The papacy always promotes peace as its official policy, as it probably should. Yet Catholic First Things editor R.R. Reno writes,

Claims that military action is necessary to deter future uses of chemical weapons are empty. This goal–and indeed any just outcome in Syria at this juncture–requires decisively defeating the Assad regime… We would be killing them so that. . . .  the world will know that the United States is serious about the fact that using chemical weapons is a bad thing.

Put simply: Just war-making requires clearly articulated and substantive goals. Launching cruise missiles or air strikes simply to “show resolve” or “send a message” cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.

I disagree with this argument. Frankly, I find it absurd to claim that in order for a war – any war – to be just, it requires decisive victory. I find Reno’s claim just as troubling that waging war in order to send a message – “symbolic killing” – is “fundamentally immoral.” Pressed to its logical conclusions, this seems to imply that if there is ever just cause for the use of military force, it has to be all or nothing.

A glance over human history suggests otherwise. There are many instances in which nations have gone to war with very limited objectives, often simply to “send a message,” and been eminently successful. The whole balance of power that preserved early modern Europe (from the most part) from the cataclysmic wars of the later 20th Century was based on an understanding of the use of force that involved a highly symbolic framework, as well as codes of respect for civilians and the rules of war.

What’s more, Oliver O’Donovan has made a powerful argument that war can only be justified as an instance of judgment, and that all judgment, but especially the death penalty, is fundamentally symbolic. Considered in these terms, it is not so absurd for the Obama administration to claim that the use of chemical weapons violates international law, and therefore deserves punishment, a punishment that may be more symbolic than absolute.

Given this, John Kerry’s argument for an attack on Syria needs to be taken seriously. There will be painful repercussions of an erosion of the international ban on chemical weapons. This case does have fearful implications for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And no nation can afford to take such concerns lightly. As Kerry warns,

For nearly 100 years, the world has stood up for an international norm against the use of chemical weapons

Are we willing to abandon that position now?

But of course, the actual situation in which we find ourselves is much more complicated than this simple calculus implies. It is true that international law – including a treaty signed by Syria itself – condemns the use of chemical weapons. It is equally true that the same international law offers no clear justification for unilateral enforcement by one nation. President Obama is arguing that America should go to war without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, without the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and without the cooperation of our oldest and best ally, Great Britain. And this despite the fact that Syria has not attacked the United States, nor is it threatening to attack the United States. As the New York Times suggests, there is no precedent for this in international law.

The United States has used its armed forces abroad dozens of times without Security Council approval, but typically has invoked self-defense … The most notable precedent for the Syria crisis was Mr. Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, but that was undertaken as part of NATO and in response to a time-urgent problem: stopping a massacre of civilians.

By contrast, the United States would carry out strikes on Syria largely alone, and to punish an offense that has already occurred. That crime, moreover, is defined by two treaties banning chemical weapons, only one of which Syria signed, that contain no enforcement provisions. Such a strike has never happened before.

In addition to the objection rooted in international law, there is the objection rooted in the American Constitution. It seems more and more likely that President Obama will not receive the authorization of Congress. If so, the enforcement of international law not only depends on the unilateral use of power by the United States, but the unilateral use of power by the executive branch of the US. government, without the support of the American people. Is that really international law at work?

To be sure, there are emergency situations where the President has the constitutional authority to commit American troops to war without congressional authorization. But this situation is no emergency. President Obama is not arguing that American interests are at stake, or that the United States is in danger. He claims that we have time, plenty of time, to make the right decision. So why act alone? Again the New York Times reports,

The move [to seek authorization from Congress] is right, said Walter Dellinger, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration, because the proposed attack is not “covered by any of the previous precedents for the unilateral use of executive power.”

“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become another precedent,” Mr. Dellinger added. “But when the president is going beyond where any previous president has gone, it seems appropriate to determine whether Congress concurs.”

It also seems appropriate to judge that if Congress does not concur, the President may want to hold back.

There is no doubt that the United States needs to do whatever it can to persuade the international community to enforce its prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, and I laud President Obama for making that effort. But where such efforts at persuasion fail, it makes little sense to claim that one president – against his country and against the international community – can single-handedly uphold this standard. No matter how personally convinced Obama is that his cause is just and that he can represent the interests of the world, he is no more convinced than Woodrow Wilson was in 1917 or George W. Bush was in 2003. Our neighbors (and enemies) around the world get that, and they will not hesitate to use it against us.

Yet we should not be naive about the consequences of such a rebuff to the White House. Walter Russell Mead notes that President Obama has said so much, relative to Syria and Iran, about red lines, about regimes having to go, and about his determination to bomb Syria, that for Congress to pull the rug out from under him would be to destroy the credibility of the only President of the United States we will have for the next three years. This crisis may have been a crisis of President Obama’s own making (the President should have secured the necessary support before he said what he was going to do), but that does not make its consequences any less serious. In a Middle East that is already so volatile, in a situation where the big crisis (Iran) is still coming, for the region’s leading power and the guarantor of the current world order to be AWOL is a potentially cataclysmic scenario. As Mead puts it, “We hate to say it, but that is so dangerous that there’s a strong argument for Congress to back the Syria resolution simply to avoid trashing the credibility of the only President we’ve got.”

Mead summarizes the dilemma perfectly. Congress only has two very bad possible courses of action, and the best we can hope for is that it chooses the least bad option.

Given the screwy diplomacy and inept political management that has characterized the administration’s approach to this whole unhappy mess, Congress admittedly faces an unappetizing choice. It can reject the request for an authorization, thereby dealing US prestige and power a serious blow (hugely weakening the international authority of the only president we will have for another three plus years) or it can back the president’s ill-considered bluff, opening the door to goodness knows what and committing US forces to yet another Middle East war.

Of course, I’m no Syria expert, nor am I a scholar of international affairs. But at a very basic level, it seems to me that if we have two very bad options, war and peace, neither obviously better than the other, we should default to peace. That’s where just war theory places the burden, and that’s where Jesus pointed Christians, at least as a general rule:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Sons of God.

President Obama’s Speech and the Politicization of Global Warming

President Obama’s speech on climate change yesterday has given rise to the predictable euphoria and hand-wringing this polarized debate inevitably causes. While most Americans – and especially younger Americans – agree that care for the environment should be a top government priority, they also view human flourishing through economic growth as non-negotiable. Unfortunately, so many of the organizations and individual activists that drive the debate reject this tension by embracing one of these concerns and playing it off against the other. Environmentalists call for protection of precious resources, regulation of industry, or curbs on pollution regardless of economic cost or even a basic awareness of how the free market works and why it matters. Conservatives vilify the Environmental Protection Agency and mock climate science, insisting that growth and jobs must always trump care for the environment.

Most Americans reject these extremes, but we’ve seen them played out again during the past two days. Indeed, the very nature of the president’s strategy makes this nearly inevitable. Even when Democrats held both houses of Congress, the president failed to win sufficient support for the cap-and-trade legislation designed to curb greenhouse emissions, due to its feared deleterious economic effects. Now, with Republicans firmly in control of the House of Representatives, Obama has chosen to follow the undemocratic path of the executive order. In 2009 at the Copenhagen Conference he made a commitment to the international community that by 2020 America would reduce its carbon emissions by 17% (from 2005 levels). Now he intends to reach that goal regardless of the lack of popular or congressional support, regardless of the cost to the democratic process.

In his speech the president offered no hint that he recognizes the legitimacy of those Republicans and Democrats who opposed his cap-and-trade legislation due to economic concerns. He gave no indication of his awareness that free market forces enabled the United States to become the first western nation to meet the emissions reduction goals of the 1999 Kyoto Treaty, a treaty that the United States Senate unanimously rejected because it was too top-down and placed unnecessary constraints on the U.S. economy. He does not seem to be aware that without following the regulation and state driven approach to carbon emissions followed by the European Union, the United States already has become the global leader in reducing carbon emissions. This is in no small part due to the U.S. embrace of mining shale natural gas through fracking, over the opposition of environmentalists who long opposed such methods on environmental grounds.

Instead of recognizing these points of potential common ground in order to bring the country together, the president implied that his opponents are mere climate change deniers, somewhat akin to the “flat earth” societies of an age long past. He proposed policies that even his supporters agree are legally controversial, stretching the Clean Air Act to its limits by calling for new emissions restrictions on already existing power plants, a strategy that one White House adviser agreed amounted to a “war on coal,” though the White House is obviously unwilling to describe it that way. He indicated once again his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas despite the pipeline’s very widespread support and obvious benefits. And all of this, of course, rests on the power of executive order and bureaucratic federal regulation. Congress is not part of the discussion.

Republicans and conservatives have responded predictably, offering little hint that they recognize climate change to be at all a legitimate concern and dismissing Obama’s proposals as mere job-killers, as if economic concerns are the only considerations to be taken into account. National Review offers perhaps the most thoughtful criticism from the right of Obama’s program:

Global warming, contrary to the predictions of the best climate models, is not accelerating. It is slowing, and some estimates show it having been reversed. The warmest year on record was 1998, and there has been significantly less warming in the last 15 years than there was in the 20 years before that. The Economist, which supports measures to control greenhouse-gas emissions and has been a reliable hotbed of warming alarmism, conceded: “There’s no way around the fact that this reprieve for the planet is bad news for proponents of policies, such as carbon taxes and emissions treaties, meant to slow warming by moderating the release of greenhouse gases. . . . They will become harder, if not impossible, to sell to the public, which will feel, not unreasonably, that the scientific and media establishment has cried wolf.”

This is a little misleading, though it’s not entirely off-target. There is no substantive evidence that global warming has been reversed. There is widespread consensus that global warming has slowed in the past 10-15 years, but temperatures have not reverted to their prior levels. 1998 was by far the warmest year on record, but there have been many years just like it in the 15 years since. It would be fair to say that global temperatures have plateaued, and that climate scientists entirely failed to predict this development. The fact that they have discovered new factors (such as the ocean heat-containing effect) to explain this “temporary” let-up in global warming, and that many have revised downwards their prediction as to the extreme rise of temperatures we are likely to see during the 21st Century, is significant, but it does not render climate change science null and void, nor does it undercut the evidence that human beings and industry are a key factor in the process.

What it does show is that climate change science, and its conclusions about the predictability of temperature, the effect that global warming is likely to have, and the role that various mitigating factors might play in restraining expected warming, is a lot less fixed than the alarmists (and in many cases, the scientists themselves) would have you believe. Add on top of that the fact that free market forces have proven far more effective in curbing carbon emissions than have the top-down measures pursued by the European Union, and we have a highly complex political issue on our hands. Surely it is the type of issue that warrants the full deliberation of the democratic process, the attention of Congress as well as of the president and the EPA.

For this to happen, both sides need to stop demonizing their opponents and exaggerating the certainty of their own arguments. Conservatives need to stop insisting that the only legitimate perspective on the issue is economic, and conservative legislators need to stop acting as if the only criteria by which any initiative should be judged is whether not it kills jobs. The president and his environmentalist allies, for their part, need to stop dismissing their opponents as if they are mere deniers, opposed to science. Rather than wasting their efforts on the sort of alarmism and wolf-crying that merely makes their arguments – and the science that really matters – less credible, they need to let democracy, culture, and education do its work.

Liberal democracy has been highly effective in turning the United States into the safest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world in part because it prevents the powerful – whether on the right or on the left – from dictating policy according to their own interests. It forces these powers instead to allow ideas and policy to undergo the necessary refinement of testing, deliberation, and democratic debate, ensuring that the full range and balance of concerns is addressed. This does not usually work out perfectly, but it has worked better than any other system known to humanity. We should give it a chance to do its work on the global warming problem as well.

Is It Just For The United States To Intervene In Syria?

At Acton University, on Wednesday, I had the privilege of hearing Marina Nemat speak about her arrest and torture as a teenager following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Nemat was just a young girl, sixteen years old, when she was arrested. She described her upbringing as a Christian in Iran leading up to the Revolution as quite normal. There was no religious tension between Christians and Muslims; women were able to travel freely, to dress like westerners and, as she put it, “have fun.” That all changed in 1979.

Nemat, along with many of her friends, was arrested because of her involvement in protests against the new regime. She was beaten, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement during an imprisonment of two years. She described to us how she was forced to convert to Islam in the face of threats that if she did not, her parents would be arrested and face the consequences. Nemat was raped and forced to marry her torturer.

But Nemat’s response to this horrific treatment was to draw closer to Christ, whom, she reasoned, had been through even worse suffering, and therefore understood what she was experiencing. Rather than hate or seek vengeance on her torturers, as she was tempted to do, she chose to forgive them. The consequences, and the PTSD, remain with her throughout her life. But despite the pain, the only possible response, she insists, is to show the love of Christ.

Still, Nemat distinguishes between forgiving people and failing to resist their tyranny. Having immigrated to Canada, she wrote the international bestseller Prisoner of Tehran, and has devoted her time and energy to speaking around the world against torture.

What was perhaps most interesting about Nemat’s speech was her insistence that more often than not American interventions in the Middle East make the problems worse rather than better. CIA complicity in the Iranian coup of 1953 helped pave the way for the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Americans like to do things quick and clean, she pointed out, but democracy is a process, not an event. Americans need to abandon their tendency to think that a revolution is always the solution.

In short, despite her torture and abuse at the hands of Islamists, or rather because of it, Nemat is highly skeptical of the benefits of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

These comments, of course, follow closely on President Obama’s decision last week to send U.S. arms to the Syrian rebels. The administration is now convinced that “Butcher” Assad’s regime has crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. There must therefore be “consequences”: America will contribute just enough in the way of small arms to ensure that a balance of power is preserved and the war – which has already claimed 93,000 lives – can drag on.

In this case one might point out, in the administration’s defense, there is no expectation of a quick and easy fix. Against the arguments of Secretary of State John Kerry, but in line with the views of the Pentagon (the Joint Chiefs appear to adamantly oppose intervention), the president is refusing to create a no-fly zone or to use air power to bring Assad’s regime down. The objective (as in Vietnam!), is not victory, but negotiation.

Such a strategy may have the merit of avoiding the sort of interventions that brought U.S. forces into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, but it hardly gives anyone hope that Syria will end up much better than have either of those countries. As Jeffrey Goldberg writes on Bloomberg.com,

The decision to provide small arms to the Syrian opposition has made no one happy — not the rebels, who understand that these quite-possibly ineffective weapons will take many months to reach them; not Kerry, who, while arguing that these shipments may become a “force multiplier” in the conflict, thinks that only a show of American air power will convince Assad and his Hezbollah allies that the U.S. is making a serious attempt to level a playing field that has been tilting their way for some time; and not the Pentagon, which thinks that Obama, despite saying that he is wary of the slippery slope, might be pushed down that slope anyway, by interventionists on his team or by events on the ground.

It is striking that even longtime interventionists like Walter Russell Mead now admit that it is hard to see how any of this might end well. The administration unnecessarily put itself in a corner with its Wilsonian rhetoric, first by declaring that “Assad must go,” and then by drawing the “red line” that would bring about such hard consequences. Now, if the United States does not act, President Obama will be regarded by countries like Russia and – most importantly – Iran as all bluff and no punch.

This is an entirely self-created problem; there was absolutely no objective reason for the administration to lay those markers on the table. There was no requirement in America’s foreign policy that the administration bounce in with the categorical demand that Assad step down….

Meanwhile at VM [Via Meadia], we are beginning to worry that there are now no good options left in Syria. Intervention looks increasingly like it would lead to a nasty quagmire; we supported it at an earlier stage before things had unraveled to their present point but are increasingly convinced that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so much that there is not a lot the US can do that would help. The current policy appears to be to feed the rebels just enough arms to keep the civil war grinding on, further polarizing Syrian society and promoting the rise of fanatical jihadis with ties to rich backers in the Gulf. Victory for Assad, even partial victory, would leave the administration in the position of having its bluff called and standing revealed as an incompetent blowhard on a major world political issue. Russia would gain credit throughout the region and the world for forcing Obama to fold, and Iran’s prestige would grow as Obama’s wilts.

If this is how the interventionists are talking, you know the case for war is weak. Yet war seems to be at the bottom of that slippery slope down which we are sliding. If Obama were to ask Congress to pass a resolution justifying intervention, he would probably get it.

What’s at stake? Mead reminds his readers why America cares about the Middle East in the first place:

The worst thing that can happen to the United States in the Middle East is that the Persian Gulf melts down and the oil flow stops, wrecking the global economy (and, despite our healthy domestic supplies, our own), bringing down the world financial system, causing mass unrest in country after country, and creating a messy situation in which a variety of ugly and expensive US interventions are absolutely required.

While most Americans probably agree that the United States should not seek to be the world’s policeman, the fact remains that America is the power that holds the global economic order together. Europeans and Australians may complain – as one burgeoning economist did to me over a few beers in Berlin last month – that U.S. militarism is out of control, but the fact remains that in the cases of Libya and Syria it is the British and the French who are pushing the Americans toward intervention. Why? They understand that the prosperity of the global economy does indeed depend on a measure of stability and security in the Middle East. Just as importantly, they understand that only the United States has the power to make that stability and security endure.

But does that amount to a case for U.S. intervention in Syria that would satisfy just war theory? I doubt the Obama administration is thinking about it from that perspective, but Christians have to wrestle with these questions. And when it gets down to it, we need to face up to the real question: is the stability of the Middle Eastern oil supply, and its importance for the global economy, sufficient grounds for the United States to intervene in a war in which neither side appears to merit such support? Perhaps the case can be made, but I remain skeptical.

The case for intervention seems to rest on something a lot more like Bismarckian Realpolitik than on anything comparable to just war theory, whether Christian or secular. And for that reason it seems to put us in that dangerous territory of having no idea what the unforeseen consequences of military action will be. Which takes me back to the stirring story – and warning – of Marina Nemat. Revolution, violence, and intervention don’t have a great track record in the Middle East. It’s one thing when war is unfortunately necessary as a requirement of justice; it’s a whole other thing when war is merely an uncertain gamble of international power politics. Perhaps both the safest, and the most just, thing the United States can do is to use its economic and diplomatic power to press for peace.

American Guns, Reason, and a Fat Walrus: Which One Did the Media Get Right?

On Friday and Saturday the Drudge Report, under a large picture of President Barack Obama, ran as its headline: “Blames Mexican Violence on U.S. Guns.” It was the sort of headline that makes so many conservatives angry. There goes our president again, apologizing for America and taking the blame for problems that aren’t even ours. There goes Obama, attacking the second amendment again. Click on the link and you find that the British Daily Mail’s headline sounds even worse: “Obama Blames American Guns For Mexican Deaths.” Other news sources, including RealClearPolitics, ran yet more inflammatory headlines: Obama Blames U.S. for Gun Violence in Mexico.”

But what did President Obama actually say? This is what he said:

We also recognize that most of the guns used to commit violence here in Mexico come from the United States.

I think many of you know that in America, our Constitution guarantees our individual right to bear arms. And as president, I swore an oath to uphold that right, and I always will.

But at the same time, as I’ve said in the United States, I will continue to do everything in my power to pass common-sense reforms that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people.

So the president didn’t exactly “blame” Mexican violence on American guns, let alone on the United States. He simply stated some troubling facts about the rampant violence in Mexico that helps to destabilize the country, and its link to trade in American guns. The president would be wrong not to acknowledge such facts, or to fail to recognize the problem as one for which America should take some measure of responsibility. We would expect the same if terrorists were killing Americans with weapons brought from, say, Iran.

Slate did no better with a different story. Slate ran as a story title on Friday: “Ridiculous Fox News Claim of the Day: Reason Caused the Holocaust. It would, indeed, be a ridiculous claim if someone said that reason caused the Holocaust. What’s the real story? Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, a Christian conservative organization, was complaining that the mayor of Charlotte proclaimed Thursday to be a Day of Reason, at the same time that he declared it a Day of Prayer. During the course of her interview on Fox News she said this:

You know the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism. And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust

Now let’s get it out there right away. It is ridiculously foolish for conservative Christian leaders to be critical of a Day of Reason. I understand the background of the day, and the intent of humanist organizations to use it to criticize the National Day of Prayer as an establishment of religion. But the appropriate Christian response, one would think, would be to praise the day by saying that Christians embrace both faith and reason (we do, don’t we?) and the contributions they have made to this country (we do admit that, right?). Criticizing reason while defending faith is sort of like loading a gun and giving it to a man who has just broken into your home to assassinate you. What was Nance thinking?

That said, Slate’s headline is highly misleading. Nance did not blame reason for the Holocaust. She made a historical reference to a specific historical and philosophical period in western civilization known as the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, and noted that one of its products was a godless moral relativism. She then drew a line between that godless relativism and the Holocaust. She could have drawn other lines to the great Communist atrocities of the century. Most prominent historians, and many ethicists, draw the same connections. Slate writer Amanda Marcotte might want to start with a standard Holocaust history like The Holocaust, by Robert Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt.

It’s media reporting like this that seriously distorts civil discourse in America. Reporters on the right and the left and in the middle need to start focusing on what’s actually happening and what people are actually arguing rather than on what sounds controversial or sensational.

The media did get one story right, however. On Thursday Montreal Canadiens’ forward Brandon Prust called Ottawa Senators’ head coach Paul MacLean a “bug-eyed fat walrus.” MacLean had just blamed the Canadiens for causing their own player’s injury in the previous night’s game, when a Canadiens defenceman had passed the puck to teammate Lars Eller with his head down in a dangerous area, only to see Eller get crushed by the Senators’ Raphael Diaz. Prust was responding to MacLean.

Now that’s news.

Is the American government accountable when it kills its own citizens?

I have not had the opportunity to study in any depth the Obama administration’s wide-ranging use of drones to kill terrorists. I am well aware of the longstanding criticisms of the use of drones coming from liberals as eminent as former President Jimmy Carter. I am also mindful that the increasing use of drones for targeted killings may be one unintended consequence of tightening restrictions both on the detention of suspected terrorists and on interrogative techniques bordering on torture. If it is extraordinarily difficult legally and politically to contain your enemies when you capture them, it becomes a whole lot simpler simply to kill them. That doesn’t make it right, but it does suggest that there are no pretty or ideal answers to the hard questions of how to wage a just war such as the War on Terror. “War is hell,” General William T. Sherman purportedly declared. That’s true even when we try to wage it justly.

Today Obama’s nominee as CIA director John O. Brennan will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing. The use of drones will certainly be discussed. And while most people in this country sensibly recognize that drones – like any other military technology – should be used to full advantage, there is also a healthy respect for the dangers of a kind of war that requires little risk on the part of America’s soldiers, that significantly endangers innocents, and that, most importantly, is potentially subject to massive abuse.

The current issue of controversy is whether or not President Obama – or any of his future successors – are accountable to the American people through their congressional representatives for the use of drones. In particular, can the President order the killing of American citizens involved in international terrorism without any  judicial oversight? I understand the fact that sometimes decisions have to be made without prior judicial or congressional permission. The president is, after all, the commander-in-chief, charged with the defense of this country. But I’m wary of a program that authorizes the government to use lethal force without any accountability for abuse. I don’t think American citizens who join the ranks of terrorists waging war against America retain all of their constitutional rights, but I do find myself agreeing with the New York Times in its criticism of the administration for dragging its feet on the matter of accountability.

The Times writes of the administration’s controversial white paper:

But it takes the position that the only “oversight” needed for such a decision resides within the executive branch, and there is no need to explain the judgment to Congress, the courts or the public — or, indeed, to even acknowledge that the killing took place.

The paper argues that judges and Congress don’t have the right to rule on or interfere with decisions made in the heat of combat. Some officials also draw a parallel to police officers who use violence to protect the innocent. Even in wartime, there are many ways to review commanders’ and soldiers’ decisions, and while courts-martial are internal to the military, their verdicts are subject to appeal to a civilian judge. When a police officer so much as discharges his weapon, it triggers a great deal of review, based on rules that are known to everyone….

Going forward, he should submit decisions like this one to review by Congress and the courts. If necessary, Congress could create a special court to handle this sort of sensitive discussion, like the one it created to review wiretapping. This dispute goes to the fundamental nature of our democracy, to the relationship among the branches of government and to their responsibility to the public.

It also goes to some fundamental principles of just war theory. No one should be allowed to use lethal force without some form of accountability under the law.

Obama’s hard turn to the left – and its high cost to the country

I’m convinced that most Americans were willing to support President Obama in a bipartisan approach to solving America’s major problems in 2013, even if that required taking off the gloves when it came to intransigent Republicans unwilling to compromise. But is the nation going to be as supportive of the president if he presses a hard-left agenda on the country, stepping down from the moral high ground of bipartisanship? CNN’s chief political analyst David Gergen writes:

On the other side of the aisle, many Republicans such as Eric Cantor were respectful of the president after his address but underneath most of them were bristling. They had expected the president to issue a ritualistic plea for bipartisanship and then to begin negotiating with them over federal deficits.

Instead, he made it clear that he will work with them as long as they agree with him and try to run over them if they resist. From the GOP perspective, Obama was virtually dismissive of the nation’s fiscal threats and wasn’t interested in true negotiations. In a tweet after the speech, scholar Ian Bremmer captured their view of Obama’s message to the GOP: “Together, we shall pursue my objectives.”

In short, the divisions in Washington may grow even deeper in the near term, if that is possible, and no one knows what will actually be accomplished.

The harder line the president pushes, the more supportive Americans are going to be of Republicans who refuse to compromise. And even liberals are surprised at just how hard a line Obama took in his second inaugural address.

Certainly the most worrisome implication of Obama’s new stance is the unlikelihood of real progress being made on the nation’s unsustainable deficit spending, and its even more unsustainable commitments in the way of health care and entitlements. Gallup’s study of poll averages indicates that Obama is presiding over an America more polarized than at any point in its post World War II history, with the sole exception of George W. Bush’s fourth year in office. That doesn’t bode well for the sort of compromise we need moving forward.

Most Polarized Presidential Approval Ratings, by Party

But The Economist – seemingly in doubt about its decision to endorse Obama for reelection this past year – questions whether the president even cares.

[I]t seems clear that resolving America’s deficit problems is not high on the president’s list of priorities. In fact he mentioned the deficit only once, about halfway in, and qualified that mention by immediately noting that “we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

To a fiscal conservative, that is precisely why the deficit is out of control: continuing to invest for the future, without scaling back the commitments that have been made to the retired, is a conflict that can only be resolved by big tax increases (which Mr Obama himself, as well as the Republicans, have already ruled out) or by everlasting deficits. Choices do, in fact, have to be made.

Senior Republicans now believe that Mr Obama has never been serious about tackling the cost of entitlements, the mandatory categories of expenditure that principally cover pensions and health insurance for the elderly, as well as health care for the very poor. Yet if benefit cuts are off the table, and further tax rises are as well (the Republicans agreed to tax rises worth around $600 billion over ten years on January 1st, in order to avert the fiscal cliff, and they now say no further tax rises can be considered), then the idea of any new bargain seems remote.

CNN and The Economist aren’t exactly hard right publications, enamored with uncompromising Congressional Republicans or ideological Tea Party activists. Indeed, given that conservatives have never trusted Obama, and are not likely to be surprised as he shows his “true colors,” it is increasingly those Americans (and foreign observers) who identify solidly with the pragmatism of middle-of-the-road politics who are most put off (and in some cases, having defended the president, even embarrassed) by this unabashedly ideological approach to politics. What ever happened to that Change Obama was going to bring to Washington, the new kind of politics that so energized and inspired the president’s supporters in 2008? If there has been any change, it seems, it has been for the worse.

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