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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.

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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.

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