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Congress is thinking about it

The Forward has a round-up of Congressional views on President Obama's war resolution. Some smart people seem to be doing some serious thinking: Joe Mancini, Barbara Mikulski, Alan Grayson (who was on the Newshour, Thursday; sharp and critical)--all Democrats.

And this illumination from the White House: "The other [choice] would be to do nothing, which White House officials privately acknowledge would damage the credibility of any future Obama ultimatum to other countries." Maybe the president should stop issuing ultimatums.

A graphic showing current (Friday morning) views of House and Senate members. WashPost

The Pentagon is not gung ho--Washington Post

Catholic commentary round-up on proposed attack in Syria

The past few days have seen a burst of commentary from Catholic writers about the proposed attack in Syria. This blog has featured a lot, and the current issue of the magazine has Gabriel Said Reynolds's essential short take. A few other items of note, and feel free to add more in the comments:

Maryann Cusimano Love on the "just war" question in the Huffington Post

Drew Christiansen, S.J., on the role of prayer in Washington Post "On Faith"

Tobias Winright on "just war" analysis in The Tablet and Catholic Moral Theology

R. R. Reno on "symbolic killing" in First Things

The USCCB's letter to President Obama

E. J. Dionne's column in praise of democracy, today in the Washington Post

Michael Sean Winters taking the liberal interventionist route in National Catholic Reporter

And, of course, the Pope has been leading the way from last week's Angelus to his letter to President Putin to his forceful social media activism, about which I wrote a short piece in the Washington Post's "On Faith" section. My take-home point was: "Prayerful, prophetic denunciation of war is one papal tradition that the reform-minded Francis will not be changing."

Elizabeth Tenety offered a round-up of some of these critiques from the commentariat, and then posed the question of whether all the Catholics in political power in the United States are listening.

Are they???

Finally, if you're in the New York area, I'm sure the Pope's out-front anti-war message will become a topic of conversation at our Fordham panel about Pope Francis on Mon, Sept 9, at Lincoln Center campus.  Info and RSVP HERE.

Two voices of conscience: Iranian and Israeli on Syria's war

Former president of Iran, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has spoken out criticizing the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons. This is a extremely neuralgic point with the Iranians who suffered gas attacks during the Iran-Iraq war.

"Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has roiled Iranian politics by admitting that the Syrian government gassed its own people at Ghuta in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. He was lamenting the calamities that are befalling the hapless Syrian people. He attacked the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for filling what he called “football stadiums” full of political prisoners, as well as for using gas on the rebels.

"This sign of division in the Iranian elite would ideally be used by Washington to put diplomatic pressure on that country. However, the American fixation with gunboat diplomacy will probably forestall that diplomatic approach." Juan Cole reports the speech and offers a brief analysis.

Aluf Ben, editor-in-chief of Haaretz, poses this challenge to Israeli leaders: "If the call for intervention in Syria stems from moral considerations, as its supporters claim, there’s no doubt that Israel, founded on the ashes of the Holocaust, should set an example for the world and send its air force to land a decisive blow on the “Syrian Hitler’s” SS units. The same strike could also hit the Hezbollah infantry units fighting nearby."

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Now on our homepage

Two new stories now featured on our homepage.

First, the editors on reading the mission statement of Matt Malone, SJ, editor of America, about the challenges facing his magazine and the Catholic media at large. A pressing concern of Malone’s is

what he perceives to be the destructive influence of secular political ideology on Catholic unity. “We view ideology as largely inimical to Christian discipleship,” he writes, arguing that “our secular, civic discourse...is a mortal threat to the ecclesiastical discourse.” In an effort to combat this “factionalism,” America will no longer allow writers to use the terms “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate” “when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context.” That editorial experiment will bear watching.

Factionalism can indeed be a threat to the church (or to the country), but honest disagreement is not always destructive of ecclesial communion; in fact, it is often constitutive of it. As John Courtney Murray, SJ, once wrote, “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” Paul took on Peter in the most direct way on the question of whether the promises of Christ could be extended to the uncircumcised. The church as we know it would not exist but for that bit of factionalism. The number of such disagreements throughout the church’s history is hard to exaggerate. In fact, church unity is more often threatened when not enough room is made for the airing and resolution of honest disagreement. Nor does it do any good to pretend that the contemporary church is actually a community of harmony and virtue simply because ideally it should be. American Catholics belong to the church, but also to many other communities and organizations. They cannot, and should not, leave those attachments behind at the church door, nor should they regard their political commitments as peripheral to their Christian witness. Quite the contrary. For example, while America’s mission statement confesses a “bias” for the “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” it asserts that the poor have no “special parties to speak for them.” Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that all parties speak for the poor equally, or equally well.

Read the whole thing here.

Also featured now, E. J. Dionne Jr. and the position President Obama finds himself in on Syria:

[I]f Obama wanted to shift our foreign policy away from the Middle East, the Middle East had other ideas. Even before the latest reports that Syria’s government had used chemical weapons against its own people, the military’s takeover in Egypt, following abuses by the Muslim Brotherhood government, blew up the administration’s hopes for a gradual movement there toward more democratic rule.

Now, the president’s own unambiguous red line against the regime’s use of chemical weapons and his statements declaring that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad should be ousted leave him little choice but to take military action. This is the conclusion Obama has drawn, however uneasy he has been about intervening in the Syrian civil war. He no longer has the option of standing aside.

The result is an agonizing set of questions and potential contradictions. Can military strikes of any kind be the sort of “narrow” or -- and this has always been a strange word for war -- “surgical” intervention that does not drag the United States deeply into the conflict? Yet if the strikes are limited enough so as not to endanger Assad’s regime, is the Syrian leader then in a position to pronounce his survival a form of victory against the United States and its allies? Does Obama really want to get the U.S. involved, however tangentially, in a new Middle Eastern war without a debate in Congress and some explicit form of congressional approval?

Read it all here.

Attack on Syria would be "a criminal act"

WIth two bishops from Aleppo and Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio still missing, the number of authoritative Christian leaders "on the ground" in Syria has dwindled. That makes it all the more important to consider the few remaining voices, as Christians ponder military action in Syria.

Today Vatican Insider reports that Gregory III Laham, the Greek Catholic Patiarch of Antioch and leader of the Melkite church, is leading a charge to stop a possible attack on Syria:

This attack being planned by the United States is a criminal act, which will only reap more victims, in addition to the tens of thousands of these two years of war. This will destroy the Arab world's trust in the West.

In a further comment that ought to give pause to those supporting a righteous use of force, he says that an attack would be "no less serious than the use of chemical weapons."

Asia News first carried the story, which is still developing.

In related news, Paul Vallely, British biographer of Pope Francis, argues in the Church Times that military action in Syria would "not yet" satisfy just war criteria. Specifically, the principles of last resort, competent authority, proportionality, and prospect of success have not been met. He concludes:

The outraged demand that "something must be done" should not bully us into doing the wrong thing. A signal needs to be sent to President Assad that he cannot use chemical weapons with impunity. But it could yet be diplomatic. Russia and Iran were both pressured to shift on their intransigence against UN weapons inspections. That has shown that the international disunity on which the Assad regime has relied need not be permanent. There is more to be achieved by diplomacy before the Cruise missiles are dispatched.

Indeed, everyone feels that something must be done.

But the cautionary voices in the United States continue to make strong cases. The tweets of Conor Friedersdorf (@conor64) of The Atlantic, for example, offer link after link to compelling arguments against military action. This morning, he offered a pithy parable:

Grease fire breaks out at meeting of Syria hawks. They pour water on it. "We couldn't do nothing!"

Who Did It? UPDATE

UPDATE, Wednesday Aug. 28. Stephen Walt has this literary analogy to our current situation.

"More than anything else, Obama reminds me here of George Orwell in his famous essay "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell recounts how, while serving as a colonial officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot a rogue elephant simply because the local residents expected an official of the British Empire to act this way, even when the animal appeared to pose no further danger. If he didn't go ahead and dispatch the poor beast, he feared that his prestige and credibility might be diminished. Like Orwell, Obama seems to be sliding toward "doing something" because he feels he simply can't afford not to."

So look what happened to the British Empire anyway!  [Update 9 P.M., but the Parliament still functions. See comment way below.]

Original Post: As war-mongering heats up in Washington, London, and Paris, and the White House asserts that it was almost certainly the Assad Regime that used chemical weapons last week, here is a Ha'aretz story that includes six different version of who might have done it.  We can look at them all with a good deal of skepticism. The White House's plunking for the Syrian government should get equal skepticism. Story here: "More Questions than Answers."

"1. One version is that of the Free Syrian Army and the political opposition, whose spokesmen explaine at a news conference Saturday that the chemical missiles were fired by the Syrian army’s Brigade 115 from its Mount Kalamun missile base and that, during the attack, the head of the Syrian missile directorate, Taher Hamed Khalil, was present at the base.

"2. Another version is that of Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq, relying on a source in the Free Syrian Army who claims that soldiers of the Fourth Elite Unit, commanded by Maher Assad - the Syrian president’s brother - raided the Scientific Studies and Research Center and captured quantities of the chemical weapons after killing a Syrian officer who refused to let them in.

"3. A third version comes from the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah, through an Iraqi source close to the separatist Muktada al-Sadr, who says that fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in charge of some of the chemical weapons stores, fired the chemical weapons at the town of al-Ghouta, despite opposition by the Syrian army brass.

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Way down in Egypt Land!

As events have swirled in Egypt, it is not hard to follow the blood and gore. It is less clear what's really going on. When Lindsay Graham and John McCain appear as the chief American interlocutors, you can be sure our policy is adrift. Reading Pat Lang this morning, I found the following comments from a journalism professor at the American University of Cairo focused on media coverage filling in some of the missing pieces. Read it here; it's short!

And here is the NYTimes account of media coverage: not as short.

UPDATE: Here is the inevitable, "The U.S. has-had-it scenario," with Russia and Saudia Arabia joining forces to calm things down in Egypt with China as backstop. Provocative and Sobering. Asia Times.

Paul Pillar at the National Interest argues that the U.S. could let the military aid to Egypt go without serious consequences for the U.S. or Egypt, but perhaps with some consequences for Israel, which has undertaken a diplomatic initiative to keep the aid flowing to Egypt. In brief, the Egyptians have no desire for a war with Israel and the Israeli military can thwart the Sinai terrorists. The problem for Israel: in the 1979 treaty with Egypt, it promised to make peace with the Palestinians within five years. A long five years!

Waiting for Fr. Paolo

It's been almost two weeks since Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit leader of interreligious peacebuilding in Syria, has vanished. It's been more than one week since the date after which he told his friends "to raise the alarm" if they had not heard from him. They -- and we -- are still waiting.

The coverage of his disapperance has been relatively widespread. John Allen's Friday column led with the story, tying it to the previous kidnappings of the Syrian Orthodox bishop and Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo. It even made the print edition of the Wall Street Journal. But no one seems to know what, if anything, can be done.

I only met Fr. Paolo once, sharing a meal, when he visited Fordham University in 2011. I obviously can't claim him has a friend. But I have been unexpectedly angry, disdainful, and plaintive in heart since hearing of his alleged kidnapping. Part of my response comes from my writing a book about early Christianity in Syria at the same time as its current civil war. Another part of it comes from having written scholarship about the art of the medieval monastery, Mar Musa al-Habashi, which is what Fr. Paolo refounded after centuries of abandonment and made into a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims who wanted to meet in peace and prayer.

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Is it possible that the Israelis and Palestinians will settle?

As Secretary of State Kerry undertook a form of shuttle diplomacy between Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Authority this Spring, his work has been treated as the feckless mission of a man who thinks he knows a lot about foreign policy. YET, that he was able to announce on Friday a meeting in Washington between two representatives without announcing any agreed upon preconditions has raised the hope that this time.... something might really be achieved. That would be a great achievement and a welcome blessing.

Stephen Walt sees several reasons why there may have been a breakthrough at the moment (if a breakthrough it is), and he hopes that this round will succeed where previous ones have not. There are reasons for hope and reasons for well, despair. Here are his calculations: "Faith over Experience. 

Further comments: Yuval Diskin, head of Shin Bet, 2005-11, asks whether Israel is reaching a point of no return for a two-state solution and will become a bi-national state with demographic consequences. Tablet Magazine (not the London Tablet!). HT: Harold Hartinger

 

Four Star Chutzpah**** UPDATE

The European Union and some of its member nations have long grumbled about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Desultory efforts to object have often fallen to the wayside. Now the EU has decided to enforce a 2005 trade agreement (signed by former PM Ehud Olmert) barring West Bank settlement products from taking advantage of Israeli customs exemptions to member nations. To this stipulation, which is to be enforced in 2014, the EU will now add the requirement that all agreements between Israel and the EU state that the area beyond the green line is "occupied territory." The details at Ha'aretz.

Of course, the Israelis object. But what is their primary argument at this point: PM Benjamin Netanyahu, King of Chutzpah, objects that  It will undermine Secretary of State John Kerry in his effort to revive the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Times story.

Really? The peace talks that are going nowhere will be undermined by an EU rule to go into effect next January? Is that the only obstacle?

UPDATE:  As the world turns! The EU implemented its old and new rules today on the Occupied Territories in the West Bank. And rather than undermining Kerry's peace efforts, it appears that many Israeli right-wingers have seized upon them as the lesser of two evils. Read the analysis of Ha'aretz blogger Chemi Shalev.

Do something; do anything.... UPDATE

...or maybe do nothing.

Fast-moving events in Egypt have been front page headlines (and the New York Times has done a great job with its daily coverage; bravo David Kirpatrick and Kareem Fahim).

The Obama administration has been somewhat less fast-moving. There are desultory discussions about whether the Egyptian military staged a coup requiring the U.S. to cut aid along with questions asking if this is any way to run a democracy. On Friday, July 5, in the midst of the crisis, President Obama played golf (and Congress men and women probably did the same or equivalent). Secretary of State John Kerry was caught out sailing on July 4. Is this any way for the indispensible nation to behave?

I'm inclined to find the U.S. hanging back on Egypt refreshing. (I bracket the question of what the CIA et al may be doing!) Here's the Washington story in the Times (July 6).

For those following the crisis, Juan Cole looks at the divisions among Middle Eastern governments over the Egyptian coup: Though concluding that they are all over the place, he points to two main contingents: "Those who would want to be rescued from an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood in their own country– the GCC, Iraq and Syria — tended to support Adly Mansour and Gen. al-Sisi. Countries whose rulers saw themselves as participating in Morsi’s brand of democratic fundamentalism–Turkey and Tunisia– angrily denounced the events as an illegitimate coup."

Eenglish

It was the Bicentennial in Cairo and our plan was to go to the Embassy and eat American food. My friend Ken, with whom I was staying, had heard that the Paris and London embassies were putting on giant spreads, so on the Glorious Fourth we went to our embassy in Cairo looking for hot dogs, fried chicken and Budweiser.  But the guards at the gate had turned us away, firmly but almost politely.  Egyptian capitalists and government officials only, thank you very much.  Get your lowly proletarian butt out of here.

So we had taken our lowly proletarian butts to Ken’s favorite American restaurant in Cairo --- a Wimpy’s.

When someone takes me to his or her favorite restaurant, I expect that the food will be good, or at least edible.  But the Wimpyburger was a pathetic lukewarm paste made up of breadcrumbs and some material that might have once been part of an animal, but chances are the animal had not been a steer.  The parfait that came with it seemed to be made out of dyed cotton wool and even the Coke tasted like the laxative my mother used to give me as a child.  What on earth was special about this place?

I asked Ken, but he was unresponsive and just kept staring up at the ceiling.  Or so I thought.  He was actually staring out of the windows that were mounted just below the ceiling, since the restaurant was in a basement.  At a certain angle, one could look up the skirts of the women passing by on the sidewalk.  Ah.  I understood.  I saw that the restaurant was full of guys just like him paying premium prices for shit sandwiches so they could watch the floor (or ceiling) show.

 

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New issue, now live

Now featured on the home page, stories from our new issue

In “Beyond the Stalemate” (subscription), Peter Steinfels looks at where we are forty years after Roe:

That Americans and American Catholics remain divided over abortion is, in important ways, to our credit. But some divisions are more necessary, compelling, or expedient than others. Some are well considered and executed, others are not. Some are paralyzing and self-destructive, others point toward fruitful resolution. Forty years after Roe, it is incumbent on Catholics to reexamine their stance toward abortion and its legalization.

There is natural resistance to any such reexamination. This is a topic associated with too much pain—and often hidden pain—along with too much hypocrisy, illusion, and male betrayal. Many Catholics who are angry at church leaders or prolife activists for their harsh rhetoric, political absolutism, moral righteousness, or general attitudes toward women and sexuality simply refuse to think about the topic further. Prolife leaders, on the other hand, boost morale by seizing on any uptick in public opinion, any success in a state legislature, and every fresh summons from religious authorities as confirmation that their present course, no matter how inadequate or counterproductive, is unassailable. …

My own reexamination of the Catholic stance on abortion begins with two simple statements and then attempts to determine what conclusions and practical proposals might flow from them.

First statement: From the very earliest stages of its life, the unborn offspring of human beings constitutes an individual member of the human species deserving the same protections from harm and destruction owed to born humans.

Second statement: This conviction, taught by the Catholic Church and shared by many people, religious and non-religious, is nowhere near as obvious as many of us who hold it suppose.

David Rieff sees trouble in the calls for “humanitarian war” in Syria: 

If the conditions on the ground in Syria today, after two years of unbridled civil war, were more akin to those in Libya at the time French president Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded his NATO partners to act, or to those in Mali at the time of the recent French military intervention than they are to the conditions in Iraq or Afghanistan, then the ardor of the liberal hawks and the neoconservatives for intervention there would not seem so reckless. After all, the interventions in Libya and Mali both seemed to recapitulate the so-called humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, where the core of the debate was never whether a U.S. or NATO intervention would be successful—this, probably rightly, was taken for granted—but only whether there was really a will in Washington, Brussels, London, or Paris to intervene in a Bosnia, Rwanda, or Kosovo. But even most of those who think the United States must act in Syria concede that not only is an effective military intervention there likely to prove far more difficult than in Iraq, let alone in Mali or Kosovo; it is also by no means sure that any political result that is now imaginable will be much of an improvement over a continuation of the Assad dictatorship.

Also, Richard Alleva reviews The Great Gatsby, and E. J. Dionne Jr. remembers Fr. Andrew Greeley, the “loving pugilist.” 

"What Is the U.S. Really Doing in Syria?" UPDATE

Stephen Walt posted this column, and question, a week ago and I read it with interest. Going back to take another look, I was taken with a few points, one apropos of Admiral John McCain's current visit to Syria.

"The Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is."

Walt's over-all speculation, and he says it's speculation, is that the U.S. is more deeply involved than publicly acknowledged. Furthermore, he sees the Administration's crackdown on leakers as part of an over-all strategy to keep our involvement out of the news.

Walt's other major point: "For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction."

Read the whole speculation here.

UPDATE 5/29: An emerging story: What are Russia and Israel doing in Syria? Russia's promise/threat to send the S-300 air defense system to Syria has brought on a war hoop from Israel Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, who says they will destroy the system if it's delivered. Let's hope they're both playing chicken hawk. Details at Juan ColePat Lang wonders if this is the beginning of WWIII with a link to a solid Reuters' story.