byFaith | 9.25.13
By Alan Dowd
More than 100,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war.
Chemical weapons are being used against civilians. Missiles and cluster bombs are
raining down onto population centers. And the war is metastasizing across
international borders: Jordan and Turkey are drowning in a tidal wave of 2
million refugees; the Syrian military has shelled Jordanian towns and shot down
a Turkish plane; Israel has launched airstrikes into Syria; Iran has sent
equipment and men to Syria; Hezbollah fighters have moved in from Lebanon; and
al Qaeda fighters have moved back and forth from Iraq.
In short, everyone agrees that Syria is a humanitarian and
geopolitical mess. What’s open to debate is what, if anything, the United
States should do about it.
After more than 1,400 civilians were killed outside Damascus
attacks, the president raised the possibility of U.S. military action, and for
good reason. Chemical weapons have been used only five times since they were
outlawed after World War I.
Even so, some Americans fear that any U.S. military response—even
a limited one to punish Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for reopening the
Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare—will escalate the war. Moreover, many people
of faith deeply oppose the use of military force, and understandably so given
what war can unleash. Of course, we must guard against moral relativism. All
uses of force are not the same: The policeman who uses force to free a hostage
or apprehend a murderer is decidedly different than the criminal who uses force
to take a hostage or commit a murder. Surely, the same principle applies to nations.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who worry that the
world’s delayed and labored response—if it ever comes—will only encourage Assad
and other international pariahs. Historians call this the “Munich Lesson,” a
reference to the West’s appeasement of Hitler during the 1938 Munich peace
Still others argue that the United States has a duty to stop
the killing—whether it’s caused by chemical weapons or conventional weapons.
This rationale falls under an umbrella known as “humanitarian intervention.” Among
the places the U.S. military has intervened on humanitarian grounds are Libya
(2011), Kosovo (1999), Bosnia (1995), Somalia (1992), Iraqi Kurdistan (1991), West Berlin (1948) and Cuba (1898). In other words,
it’s nothing new. More than a century ago, President Theodore
Roosevelt argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the
oppressed” and suggested there are times to act “in the interest of humanity at
Nobel Peace Prize recipient and holocaust survivor Elie
Wiesel invoked this same line of thinking during a 2012 ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust
Memorial. “The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had
the civilized world spoken up,” he intoned. “So in this place we may ask: Have
we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?”
Wiesel’s question is easy to answer for those who
avert their gaze from the world or contend U.S. foreign policy should be based solely
on interests. But it’s much harder to justify taking a Pilate-like approach for
those who wrestle with the headlines and believe the civilized world is called
to defend more than its narrow interests.
For me, this tension has three sources.
First, there’s Luke 12, where
Jesus explains, “From the one
who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Given how much we
Americans have been entrusted and blessed with, why would heaven not expect us
to help the innocents of Syria?
Second, there’s Proverbs 3,
which commands, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in
your power to act.” Given the economic, political and military might of
the United States, it’s basically always within our power to act. And given the
networked world in which we live, averting our gaze is nearly impossible. That’s
a crucial point: The need for humanitarian intervention is not greater today
than in the past, but our awareness and capacity to help are.
That leads to the third source of my angst over the question
of intervention—one that has less to do with enduring biblical principles than
with today’s public-policy realities. A president must balance interests and
ideals—a sense of justice with a recognition that the application of U.S. power
is best limited to those areas where interests and ideals intersect. The power
a president wields, after all, is a finite resource. That explains why President
not a large-scale intervention to uphold humanitarian values (which would
reflect America’s ideals), but rather a narrow operation to reinforce the taboo
against chemical weapons (which is in America’s interests).
Still, a limited response to Assad’s brutality—let alone a
nonresponse—isn’t easy to reconcile with the notion that we are sometimes called
to be instruments of justice.
Perhaps the way out of this dilemma is to cling to the notion that those
biblical admonitions from Luke and Proverbs are intended for individuals, not
governments. Governments, after all, have different responsibilities and are held
to different standards than individuals. As Paul writes, “Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.
They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”
(Romans 13).In other words,
governments are expected to do certain things individuals aren’t expected to
do—and arguably shouldn’t do certain things individuals should do. For example,
a government that turned the other cheek when attacked could be conquered by an
evil foe, leaving countless innocents defenseless against that evil.
Speaking of government, some argue
that the problem with the Assads of the world is that they’re not answerable to
any government, since there is no authority above the nation-state (at least
not here on earth). The closest thing—the United Nations Security Council—is
unable to reach consensus on how to deal with Assad. That helps explain why the
thankless chore of enforcing the prohibition on chemical weapons—and
slamming shut Pandora’s Box—has fallen into
America’s lap. “For nearly seven decades,” as the president observes, “the
United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing
more than forging international agreements—it has meant enforcing them.”
The Russian proposal to cajole Syria into rounding up and
handing over its chemical weapons will not likely bear real fruit as long as
the civil war continues, which suggests the proposal may be more of a ploy than
a solution. Moreover, it leaves the humanitarian crisis at the heart of the
Syrian civil war unaddressed. (Less than one percent of Assad’s victims have
been killed by chemical weapons.)
No matter the
rationale—humanitarian or punitive, interests or ideals, or some combination of
these—intervening in Syria would carry costs and consequences. But not
intervening carries its own costs and consequences, which the past two years
have made abundantly clear. The challenge is to choose the least bad option, which
is why our political leaders need wisdom—and our prayers.
Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith's online magazine.