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 by sarin-gas 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 conference.

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 large.”

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 Obama proposed  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.