My nickname is Pat, but the Egyptians named me Mr. Bat, since Arabic has no “P” sound and they liked to pretend that they couldn’t pronounce the letter.
When I went to Cairo in 1976 to visit my high school friend Ken (known to the Egyptians as Mr. Kent), I was an uptight Catholic working class boy. Although I had grown a beard to annoy my boss at work (and to hide what I thought were my overly youthful features) and although I had long hair like everyone else in 1976, I was no hippie. I certainly wasn’t a confirmed pot or hash smoker. I was very straight-laced for the time.
I expected the Egyptians to be straight laced too. If I can put a word to what I expected, that word would be austere. Although I was aware that Egypt was a more open society than, say, Saudi Arabia, I expected it to be chaste and humorless, rather like Massachusetts in the 17th century.
This is probably why it took me about two weeks to get the first joke that was played on me. The morning after I had arrived, I noticed that Ken was still wearing a gallabiyah (a robe like outfit that most non-Westernized Egyptians wore). He usually did so in the apartment. It seemed cool in both senses of the word, and I asked him if I could borrow one. He readily agreed and he loaned me three of them for my own use. I was delighted and I put one on immediately.
What he didn’t tell me was that the three that he loaned me had belonged to his ex-girlfriend Shelley. There are subtle (to a Western eye) differences between a man’s and a woman’s gallabiyah that I didn’t see and for two weeks Ken and his friends and neighbors enjoyed the spectacle of me dressing up as Ken’s girlfriend. I now understood why I got such strange looks from the postman, the doorman, the garbage collector, and the laundry man.
Robert Gates memoir, Duty, has gotten a rough reception in the media. But considering his view of the media, and of Congress, and of Obama staff, that should be no surprise. That's why Tom Rick's opening paragraph in his front-page review at the NYT Books is refreshing with just the right splash of vinegar.
"As I was reading “Duty,” probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever, I kept thinking that Robert M. Gates clearly has no desire to work in the federal government again in his life. That evidently is a fertile frame of mind in which to write a book like this one."
Duty seems to be the story of a dutiful guy who has served, it says, eight administrations and went to the Department of Defense in the nadir of the Iraq war. I am a few chapters in and what I find is instructive so far:Read more
The White House and the U.S. Senate are in a game of chicken. Senate Bill S. 1881, "Nuclear Free Iran Act," now has more than 59 co-sponsors. If it came to the floor, it would pass. The President has said he will veto the bill. Supporters reposte: we will override the veto. The White House has said if these Senators want war with Iran, come out and say so. Senate proponents claims it is an insurance policy against Iranian failure to rid itself of its nuclear program.
What's going on? It depends on who you ask. Tuesday's New York Times offers this: "Behind these positions is a potent mix of political calculations in a midterm election year. Pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, have lobbied Congress to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, and many lawmakers are convinced that Tehran is bluffing in its threat to walk away from the talks."
Maybe it's the "blank check" the U.S. has long given Israel. In that case it's Kaiser Wilhelm's doing; as I discuss in my current column.
In an anticipated moment for ecumenism with the eastern churches, Pope Francis will meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during his three-day trip in late May. He made the announcement today, the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras.
Visits to Bethlehem in the West Bank and Amman, Jordan, had already been revealed. The announcement of his plans in Jerusalem was what many were anticipating. A few weeks ago Israeli officials were concerned that Pope Francis might not celebrate Mass in Jerusalem during his trip. Now in today's reports there seems to be ambiguity about the function of the meeting at the Holy Sepulchre.Read more
From Yediot Aharonot yesterday and The Tablet today come some tentative details about Pope Francis's trip to the Holy Land. The Israeli newspaper reports that the short trip's proposed schedule has "dashed hopes" of a Papal Mass in Jerusalem.Read more
Last week reports were that Congressional action on further Iran sanctions had faded. Apparently not so. The "Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013," has been introduced by Senators Schumer, Mendez, and Kirk. It is likely to be taken up after Congress returns in the new year.
Jim Lobe has a run-down of its major provisions. You can read it here: Lobe Log.
The bill's provisions ham-string diplomatic efforts to negotiate with Iran over it's nuclear program. It would require that Iran give up the program, which is unlikely. It undermines the goal of the current negotiations cutting back and ending any potential nuclear bomb program. The bill will have none of that.
Then there's this: "…if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence…"
The qualifying words and phrases notwithstanding, that looks like blanket permission for Israel to bomb Iran. If Netanyahu decides to do so the United States will be forced to join in.
Lobe calls it the "Wag the Dog" bill. But why not "Let's Give Israel a Blank Check"?
Muslim immigration to Italy. Persecution of Christians in Syria. Anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands. Anti-Christian rulings in Malaysia. Mosque burnings in the United States and church burnings in Egypt. These sad events are some of the most obvious points of contact between Catholics and Muslims in the modern world. Thus, it’s unsurprising that Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” makes mention of Islam and Catholic-Muslim interaction. In his familiar style, Pope Francis smartly roots his commentary on Islam in the tradition of the Church and his predecessors, while at the same time forges new theological territory.
In our time
Fifty years ago, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council published Nostra Aetate (“In our time”), which spoke in new ways about the Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, including Islam. This document was prompted by the important events of that era, when the world was coming to grips with the reality of the Holocaust and the increased interaction between people of different faiths. In his exhortation, Francis responds to the signs of our own time—the issues and events that are salient for Catholics and Muslims today.
Francis begins his three hundred-word discussion of Islam by highlighting the phenomenon of increased Muslim immigration to Europe. No doubt aware of the challenges and prejudices faced by Muslims in Europe, Francis writes that “we Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries.” His visit to Lampedusa, an Italian island where many African immigrants make landfall, indicated his own personal concern about the plight of refugees—including non-Christians. Yet, Francis describes the situation in Europe in overly idealistic terms—saying, “they can freely worship and become fully a part of society”(252) —seeming to understate the impact of often-racist policies that keep Muslim immigrants confined to ghettos and low-paying jobs.
Francis also addresses the recent spike in persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries: “I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!”(253) This statement is only one of many he’s made on the plight of Christians—and all those suffering—in the Middle East.Read more
...the rest of the world went on without a Thanksgiving celebration. So to catch you up, here's a wonkish analysis of where the Obama-Netanyahu struggle stands. It is written by an Englishman, so it should be read with a grain of salt. On the other hand, he has an optimistic take on what Obama (and Kerry) might pull off in Middle East diplomacy.
...Bibi-watchers are focused now on how the Israeli leader will play the next six months, in which the Geneva agreement will either blossom into a lasting accord or break apart. But it prompts another question: what will be the impact on Israel's conflict closer to home? Could the breakthrough with Iran somehow presage a breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians? The wisest bet would be on no....
But there's another, riskier bet to make. It says that Obama now has momentum in the Middle East, using diplomacy to solve problems previously deemed soluble only through military action. Perhaps it's true that he stumbled on a remedy for Syria..... And now there is Iran....
Intriguingly, Obama's policy of restraint found a supportive echo in the Israeli securocracy: it was the loud, sometimes public opposition of current and former military and intelligence chiefs that made it all but impossible for Netanyahu to contemplate air strikes against Iran. It turns out that it was the fruit of a deliberate, planned effort by Washington, patiently creating what one anaylsis calls a "United States lobby" within the Israeli security elite. Now established, there is no reason why that same US lobby could not be mobilised to pressure Bibi again – this time on the Israel-Palestine track.
Will the sky fall? Chicken Little: Thank you for asking, Apparently not for 6 months. Check back in June.
UPDATE: 11/24 An agreement between the P5+! was reached. President Shimon Peres of Israel welcomed it: “the success or failure of the deal will be judged by results, not by words,” and he called on the Iranians “to reject terrorism” and to stop the nuclear program and the development of long-range missiles.
“Israel, like others in the international community, prefers a diplomatic solution,” Mr. Peres said. “But I want to remind everyone of what President Obama said, and what I have personally heard from other leaders: The international community will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. And if the diplomatic path fails, the nuclear option will be prevented by other means. The alternative is far worse.”
PM Netanyahu does not agree with Peres or Obama, on the merits of the interim agreement. And perhaps many in the U.S. Congress will second Netanyahu. But scuttling the agreement by imposing more sanctions rather than helping to control Iran's nuclear program would look like an act of revenge against Obama and Kerry for succeeding at diplomacy instead of starting a war.
Yesterday's post below:Read more
Now featured on the website, the editors on negotiating with Iran, and the first in our special series on raising kids Catholic (more on that below).
From the editorial “The Threat of Peace”:
Iran insists that its nuclear industry is intended only for peaceful purposes. But it would be irresponsible to take Iranian promises at face value. … Still, almost by definition, most efforts to avoid war involve dealing with dangerous and untrustworthy foes. Consequently, confidence-building steps are necessary. Led by Secretary of State John Kerry, the international community has proposed an interim agreement to test the regime’s real intentions…. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been a vociferous opponent of any interim deal, claiming that if sanctions are lifted even temporarily it will be impossible to re-impose them. Netanyahu and some in Congress want the sanctions tightened further, arguing that only the harshest pressure can force the Iranians to make meaningful concessions. Given his previous objections to the administration’s Iran policy, Netanyahu’s new-found faith in sanctions is curious, to say the least. …
Diplomacy rarely succeeds unless each party offers the other a way to save face with hardliners at home. In that light, the sort of interim agreement Secretary Kerry is proposing seems worth the limited risks involved.
Also live, the first in our multipart series “Raising Catholic Kids,” in which we asked parents to discuss and reflect on their experiences in “rooting family in faith.” We’ll be posting new installments on a regular basis in coming days, and we’ll be packaging the series so that as new articles go live they’re collected all in one place. Featured today, J. Peter Nixon:
I have two children of my own now. Many parents react to perceived deficiencies in their own childhood by leaning violently in the other direction. I am no different. I have done everything in my power to give my children the deep roots in the Catholic tradition that I did not have. My wife and I have made the financial sacrifice to send our children to Catholic school, a sacrifice that will become all the more difficult as they enter (God willing!) the local Catholic high school. Both of us pursued graduate work in theology and we are deeply involved in a wonderful parish where we are active in a variety of ministries.
Aside from the investment in their education, I did not do most of these things for my children. I did them because they seemed at least a meager return for what God has done for me in Jesus Christ. But I have also tried to live my faith in a way that would make it truly attractive and credible to my children.
Every now and then I feel that it’s working.
Read the whole thing here, and remember to check back at the homepage as we post additional pieces. And as the series concludes, we’ll be featuring as an online exclusive some reflections by young people (who to some might still count as kids) on what they learned being raised in Catholic families.
The U.S.-Israel relationship has not run super-smoothly during the Obama Administration, but last Spring when the President visited Israel things looked to be patched up. But now.....
Nathan Guttman of the Forward has a rundown on the current dispute(s), primarily over the negotiations with Iran but also the failing talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Secretary of State John Kerry has taken the lead on these and is now the object of the usual attacks, not only by Israeli right-wingers, but our very own right-wingers (and moderate-wingers) in Congress (the well worn "anti-Semitic" has been bandied about). Congress may add to the sanctions against Iran, a move that Obama and Kerry oppose while the current negotiations continue; they resume November 20.
Of course, all of this may be papered over. Yet as Tom Friedman (surprise!) pointed out this past week, the U.S. needs to press its own interest in this matter. Friedman thinks it is in Israel's interest as well, but PM Netanyahu disagrees:
Friedman: "We must not be reluctant about articulating and asserting our interests in the face of Israeli and Arab efforts to block a deal that we think would be good for us and them. America’s interests today lie in an airtight interim nuclear deal with Iran that also opens the way for addressing a whole set of other issues between Washington and Tehran."
MORE: But then there's this account of Israeli lobbying in the Congress: "According to multiple Congressional aides, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are storming Capitol Hill in an effort to discredit the Obama administration's interim nuclear deal with Iran. The effort coincides with a visit by Israel's Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett, who is also speaking with lawmakers on the Hill. The campaign includes one-on-one briefings with lawmakers that provide data that strays from official U.S. assessments." Whole thing at Foreign Policy: The Cable.
Last week, here in Amman, we celebrated the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the pope who bears his name. Parishes held large Masses, and the Franciscans friars at the well-known Catholic school Terra Sancta College performed their annual ritual commemorating the life and work of their patron. The Jordanian Catholic television channel Noursat/Telelumiere (Light TV) live-streamed Francis’s visit to Assisi and provided immediate Arabic translation of his remarks.
The most important event was a Mass in honor of the pope hosted by Apostalic Nuncio Giorgio Lingua, the Vatican’s ambassador to Jordan. Though the Mass was an elaborate affair with many non-Catholic guests, a large youth choir, posters of the pope, and a post-Mass reception, it has not yet been covered in English-language news outlets.
This post isn’t an attempt to cover the event from a journalist’s perspective. Instead, because I was in attendance as a worshipper, I hope to share some of my own reflections on the significance of the service. The Mass reflected ways in which the spirit of the two Francises is alive and well the Catholic Church in Jordan, and it illustrates what the global church can learn from the church in the Holy Land.
Nuns on a bus
Many of those in attendance at the Mass, which was held outside Amman at Our Lady of Peace Center, a Catholic-run complex that serves individuals with special needs, were nuns. Nuns from numerous orders and nationalities live in Jordan, including the Comboni Sisters who work in Amman’s Italian hospital. I met these sisters, who hail from Italy, Egypt, Syria, Poland, and Singapore, on the bus ride to the service, and I continue to see them at morning Masses at Amman’s Jesuit Center. Their humble ministry reflects two of the values promoted by Pope Francis and his namesake: simplicity and accompaniment. These sisters left their home countries to live and work among the sick of Jordan. These nuns are a reminder that the church is not just one in service of the poor, but of the poor.
What Christian unity looks like
The Mass was not just a celebration by Catholics, but by leaders of other faiths in this religiously diverse area. Representatives from Orthodox and Coptic Churches were easily noticeable from their distinctive garb. Other Eastern leaders entered alongside dozens of Roman Catholic priests as the Mass began, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who sat beside the Catholic leaders on the altar, beneath a large icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
In his homily, Archbishop Fouad Twal, head of the Archdiocese of Jerusalem, which includes Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Cyprus, spoke about the unifying nature of Pope Francis’s papacy: “His Holiness is a source of pride for us, because during the short time of his papacy, not more than seven months, the pope has been able to seize the hearts of many people, enthrall them with his goodness and simplicity and angelic smile, whether they be Christians or non-Christians.”Read more
“Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio is alive and is being treated well by his kidnappers, who are members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) extremist group,” anti-regime activist Khalaf Ali Khalaf was informed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated sources close to the extremist group.
Sources saw the Italian Jesuit last Saturday in an area in northern Syria where ISIS is active, Khalaf told Aki-Adnkronos International news agency. The journalist, who is based in north-eastern Syria, did not wish to reveal the identities of his sources for fear of reprisals. Neither did he mention where exactly Dall’Oglio had been seen. The Jesuit priest went missing in the city of Raqqa on 28 July.
He had re-entered Syria in hopes of assisting peace negotiations in the Kurdish region of Syria. Over decades, he and his monastery / retreat center had become a symbol of positive Muslim-Christian relations in Syria. May he be able to continue in that work...
Peace in the ME is not very likely, certainly not soon. Here are some articles on the varying degrees of difficulty faced by both the U.S. and Iran if serious negotiations go ahead.
"While the congressional playing field is not entirely clear yet, one thing is obvious. Obama is going to need support in his peacemaking efforts. That support will need to come from the U.S. public and he will need to know that he has it in order to counter what is sure to be a furious onslaught from the most powerful forces that oppose any normalization with the Islamic Republic. That onslaught is coming and it is going to be furious. Obama will also need support from Iran, of all places. Rouhani will need to maintain the positive face he is portraying. And Rouhani should not be alone in this endeavour. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, apparently recognizing that Rouhani had not gone far enough in distancing himself from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, has made sure to unequivocally acknowledge the Holocaust and its horrors. However prominent one thinks that issue should be, the clear statements were obviously intended to forestall the use of that issue against progress in upcoming nuclear talks." Mitchell Plitnik at Lob Log
And this from Tehran: "Yes, a shoe was thrown at Rouhani upon his return from New York City from a group of about 50 or so male demonstrators. But there were more supporters than detractors. It is also true that the intractable Hossein Shariatmadari of Kayhan has found 5 "lamentable" aspects of Rouhani’s trip and performance (including the way the President answered the Holocaust question, his reference to Israel instead of the Zionist regime, and of course, the phone call). But he has also had to defend himself against the charge of sounding more like Bibi Netanyahu than the Leader’s representative to the state-run newspaper." Fahrideh Farhi also at Lobe Log
Here is a clear-headed analysis of a possible U.S.-Iran rapproachment:
"The apparent restraint of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday afternoon seems to have disappointed many Western observers. They charge Rouhani with failing to show much of the "heroic flexibility" that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently claimed would characterize Iran's new diplomatic strategy toward the West. In truth, the West should not be so surprised. Iran's diplomatic offensive of recent weeks is, in fact, a significant shift -- just not in the way most Westerners have seemed to think."
Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for "mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice"—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world.
While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks.Read more
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
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"
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.
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.
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."Read more
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?