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Syria and us

Today I have been doing my best to fast and pray for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and the world as the pope, seconded by our bishops, asked us to do.  But my prayer and fasting are agitated by concerns that take quite a different turn from those of many of my closest friends and those of many voices on this blog. 

Some days ago, when I began turning all these things over in my mind, I basically thought the Obama administration, for all the reasons that it has given, was doing the right thing, including requesting congressional approval.  I recognized reasonable objections to taking a limited, punitive military action against the Assad regime for its breaking yet another barrier to total depravity in warfare.  To my thinking, and I did quite a bit of thinking, those arguments against acting were less substantial than the argument for acting.  As of this moment, I am less sure, largely because of the President’s inability to rally more international support.   

But I am far less concerned to add my own arguments to ones that are being advanced all over the place than to look at something else. What I sense going on and what I have been including in my prayers does not have much to do with any careful weighing of reasons.  It is a mood, a reflex, a gut reaction, and it resembles all too much a state of mind I spent years studying.  We complain, not quite fairly, that generals always refight the last war.  But to the extent that it is true of generals, it is no less true of anti-war activists.  They are always opposing the last war.  


I spent much of the late sixties and early seventies researching and thinking and writing about a group of French left-wing political intellectuals and their reactions to the rise of Nazi Germany’s power in the 1930s.  They were highly intelligent and moral people, with no love for Nazism (many were Jewish, in fact).  They also had a deep suspicion of the military.  Some had been drawn into politics by the Dreyfus Affair; all had been deeply marked by the bloodletting of World War I.  Now they confronted one crisis after another as the Third Reich marched toward war—Germany’s renunciation of membership in the League of Nations (1933) and of the disarmament clauses in the Treaty of Versailles (1934); Germany’s rearming, introduction of conscription, and expansion of military forces (1935); Germany’s military reoccupation of the demilitarized Rhineland on France’s border (1936); Germany’s pacts with Italy (1936) and Japan (1936-37); the failure of League sanctions against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (1936); German and Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39); Germany’s annexation of Austria (1938); Germany’s threats against Czechoslovakia (1936-38), that nation’s dismemberment after the Munich Pact (1938), and annihilation (1939). 

Among these French thinkers, pundits, professors, and political activists, there were important differences, but as they debated each new crisis the conclusion was always the same: don’t do anything involving the possible use of military action.  Each of these crises, after all, had its own complexities, and no military measure is without costs and risks.  One could always find reasons for inaction.  Behind all the reasons, however, was a simple visceral impulse: a determination never to do anything that repeated August 1914 and the slaughters of World War I.  No group could have been more secular than the one I was studying, but they were as committed as any recent pope to the cry “No more war!  War never again!” 

And these left-wing intellectuals were hardly alone in this reaction.  It was shared in the highest circles of military leaders, by partisan politicians, and both left- and right-wingers disgusted, and not without cause, with France’s governing classes.  By the time the paralysis was broken, it was too late. 

In the case of those I studied, this unwillingness ever to entertain seriously the use of military force sprang from deep moral passion and the highest of anti-war motives.  What was the cost of this mood, to which they contributed their own due portion?  Cause and effect in history are never clear cut.  But I think that it is moral cowardice not to contemplate the great possibility that millions upon millions of deaths and genocidal atrocities were the result.  Yes, a passion to avoid war contributed its own measure not to 1500 deaths, nor 100, 000, but millions.

Did this sad lesson turn me into a “hawk”?  Hardly. At the very time I was poring over this depressing material I was demonstrating against the war in Vietnam.  If anything, recognizing the paralyzing grip that World War I had on the political and moral imagination of these intellectuals of the 1930s undermined the warnings of some Americans that withdrawal from Vietnam would knock down all the dominoes like another “Munich.”  Beware of simple historical analogies. 

Am I suggesting another one here?  Chemical weapons are not panzer divisions. Assad is not Hitler, although certain resemblances are worth exploring.  But in the current debates I cannot help hearing echoes of a whole catalogue of half-truths and evasions that I encountered in my research.  

Warfare never settles anything.  (It doesn’t but it settles some things, though never without wounds and scars.)  Aren’t we responsible too?  (Yes, but how does that absolve us from acting now?)  Having tolerated so much already, how can we draw a line here?  (And then use the same argument against drawing a line somewhere else.)  Doesn’t any military action pose risks miscalculation and escalation?  (Absolutely, and they should be measured, very scrupulously, against the risks of not acting.)   Pursue diplomacy instead of warfare.  (Diplomacy doesn’t operate in a vacuum.)  Resort to armed force should only be a last resort.  (Agreed, as long as one’s definition of a “last resort” is realistic and not a matter of infinite regress or a purely hypothetical “something more” that lacks all practical substance.) 

I don’t know how many times my justifiably anti-war intellectuals insisted that Hitler should be “put on the spot” diplomatically, or that France had planted the seeds of Nazism by the harshness of  the Treaty of Versailles, or that France could hardly complain of Nazi depredations as long as it was guilty of colonial crimes in Indochina and Algeria, or that talking about military action was only beating the drums for war as in 1914, or that nothing could be done without a unified front of anti-German allies.  These intellectuals were always condemning, deploring, warning, appealing, but never in favor of acting.  Behind that, as I said, was the specter of 1914. 

And behind the impassioned dismissals of Obama’s “folly,” as a dear liberal friend labeled it in an email to me the other day, is the specter of Iraq.  What has struck me as much as anything in my friends and acquaintances’ deploring of Obama’s “folly” is how it is assumed that the whole business is clear as can be. Indeed, there are important, even frightful, lessons to be taken from Iraq.  Some of them clearly inform the present administration’s policy; but none of them should be a blanket veto on military force.  In my view, that would be only one more stupidity added to the many of our Iraq invasion.  It would not be a correction of Iraq but an extension of it.  

I am not thinking here of those who believe that faithfulness to Jesus demands an unqualified witness to non-violence on the part of Christians and the church. Nor am I thinking of those who are seriously struggling to apply just-war thinking.  I am thinking of those among them, however, who make pacifist appeals or reach just-war conclusions while pretending that these are also the most certain paths to peace, justice, and an end to suffering.  It would be nice for a change if all moralists were as candid about the risks and uncertainties of their positions as they demand the government be about its. 

On his first night back at host of “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart basically compared the stakes in Syria to a contest between seventh-grade boys about whose penises were bigger.  His closest brush with wit came when he suggested that having stood by while Assad killed 100,000, the U.S. outrage about chemical weapons merely amounted to telling the Syrian dictator the most appropriate way to go about killing his own people. I think many of my Iraq-embittered friends would have been discomfited by the juvenility of this humor but would have been thoroughly sympathetic with the audience’s approving laughter. 

If Congress rejects any adequate response to the Assad regime’s use of poison gas, I don’t believe that diplomacy will be strengthened or the danger of regional war reduced or proliferation of nuclear weapons countered or world order and international institutions upheld.  I can see some upside, such as restoring Congress’s role in exercising its responsibilities regarding military actions.  There is a good case for an overall retreat of America’s efforts to exercise leverage internationally.  That is what I believe Obama has been attempting.  But if this effort is driven, or even seen to be driven, by an Iraq-inspired gut refusal of all military options, the halo effect will be major.  Let’s at least be honest enough to recognize that. 

Credibility is a meaningful factor in international affairs as in other aspects of life.  But credibility cannot rest with one president or one administration.  In a democracy it finally rests with the people. That is why Obama was right in asking for congressional approval.  That is why he was right in saying in Sweden that it was not his personal credibility that was on the line but the international community’s.

So far he appears unlikely to get more than a narrow approval in Congress, if that, and he has received minimal back from other nations, most importantly, ones that share our values.  In these circumstances, perhaps credibility would best be served if Obama underlines that “out of a decent respect for the opinion of mankind,” absent a substantial backing of the people’s representatives and of other nations, the U.S. will not act.  But he should be absolutely clear about what he believes is at stake and why he believes it and what this choice may portend for future ones.   

Is the idea of an anti-Assad military action that is both limited and punitive a contradiction in terms?  Has the intelligence been sufficiently and honestly shared or, shades of Iraq, has it possibly been “cooked”?  What responses are planned for retaliatory actions by Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran?  How does a military action relate to any notion of a potential political resolution in Syria?  These are reasonable questions, and there are, I believe, reasonable answers that can be weighed, but not if the bar is raised so high (reveal every source of intelligence, give us the military plans in precise detail, provide assurance of no risks whatsoever) as to preclude ahead of time any conclusion but one: don’t act.

You can argue about the wisdom, prudence, and morality of this or that proposal, the likelihood of this or that sequence of events, or the balance among consequences of acting and not acting.  But you can’t argue with a miasma of suspicion, anger, and fixation on the past war.  That is what I fear is operating among too many people and I have been making it part of my prayers. 

About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.



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Peter Steinfels, thank you for this reflection.

During graduate studies, I took several courses in European diplomatic history that focused on the years from November 1918 to September 1939. I think it one of the most tragic periods in history, certainly the history of Europe. I did my MA thesis on the reaction of the British Government to Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938. Nothing greatly insighful. Essentially, they just caved in. And the rest followed.

I just don't know. Though I do know that I am plagued with a temperament that sees merits on both sides of most arguments. But I am troubled at how many commenters, including blog participants, appear to have the whole thing figured out.  I just can't be so sure, and I suppose that's no help. I am, however, convinced that President Obama is sincerely struggling with questions of morality, far, far more so than did President Bush and his principal advisers in 2003. (And the continuing daily slaughter in Iraq is now relegated to the inner pages, if at all.)

Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, in his deep, resounding voice, would often say at the end of his lectures in Church History to the seminarian students at CUA, "Gentlemen, things are not white; things are not black; they are grey."


On to Evening Prayer, with the Pope's intentions in mind, though I regret that the beautiful feast of The Nativity of Mary loses its place to Sunday this year. But I can alays say two concluding prayers to take in both.

Thank you for your post.  What you have said needed to be said.


My anger and passion is directed at the Syrian government for what it is doing, not at the United States for what it is proposing to do.  At Assad rather than at Obama.


We are always applying the “lesson” from the wrong war to whatever current situation is being addressed.  I remember the run-up to the Persian Gulf War of 1991, when President George H. W. Bush led the coalition that kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and back into Iraq.  There were a lot of people claiming that it was going to be another Vietnam, but they were ridiculously wrong.  We were so much more powerful than Iraq’s army.  I was proud of what we did there.  And I was proud of what President Clinton and NATO did in Kosovo and Serbia, even though Russia was blocking any action by the Security Council. 


On the other hand, the administration of George W. Bush applied the lesson of the Persian Gulf War to the situation in Iraq.  “A cakewalk,” V.P. Cheney opined.  It was a disastrously wrong misapplication.


I am no military strategist, as I assume most of us posting comments here aren’t.  And if we proceed and President Obama has miscalculated, it will go very badly for the United States, perhaps for the people of Syria, as well, and certainly for the world regime of deterrence that keeps at least some evil conduct in the Pandora’s box where it belongs.  But as you have so ably pointed out, there are serious downsides to inaction as well.


And it seems to me that President Obama has done things to earn our trust in this matter.  For two years, he has kept us out of Syria despite much criticism from others.  So, its obvious he isn’t trigger happy.  And he has kept his word to us on other related matters.  He said he would end our participation in the war in Iraq and he has done so.  He said he would keep our involvement in the Libyan action at levels acceptable to the American people, and he kept his word.  And he is winding down the war in Afghanistan.


His proposal for action in Syria has a specific, limited goal – hit Assad hard enough so that any possible benefit Assad thinks he might achieve by using nerve gas will be more than offset by the price he pays as a result.  Assad is a savage tyrant, but he isn’t a madman.  He has a specific war aim himself – the survival of his regime.  If he sees he is endangering his regime by his use of poison gas, then presumably he will stop using it.  It may take more than one U.S. strike to do the job, but it seems doable to me.


And if it works, wouldn’t we have done a good thing and wouldn’t we be proud?


Maybe it won’t work.  Maybe Assad’s sponsors – Iran and Russia – will be less interested in tactical disadvantages to Assad and more interested in entangling the United States in an extended, unpopular involvement.  Maybe they will force conduct on Assad that he would not otherwise take.  Or maybe Assad will not act rationally and will continue to use gas no matter what.  Or maybe something else will go badly wrong.  But there are always going to be uncertainties, and what would we think of a soldier who refused to fight unless he was guaranteed victory in advance?


In any event, here’s where my attention is focused:  Is the moral good that we can do if we succeed – including upholding the international regime of deterrence –  outweighed by the risk that we might fail.


Again, thanks for bucking the trend in your thoughtful, eloquent post.

Peter, I appreciate the thought you have put into these questions. As you imply, though, the lessons of history don't always fit perfectly. Secretary Kerry has invoked Munich, but this is hardly a Munich moment. Assad is not going abroad to attack anyone. He isn't looking for even an Anschluss. He is trying to keep his own country, knowing that if he loses it his life will be lost with it.

A little more carnage from the outside can't change Assad's choice -- win or die. It's not as if he can be disuaded from trying to save himself any way he can by a chastisement from us.

Thanks, Mr. Steinfels - your wisdom reminds me of a grandfather talking to his children and grandchildren.

Like Mr. Page, did my MA in History thesis on US & Vietnam:  A Critique of the Governmental Decision-Making Process.  Nothing great and subsequent revelations, certain individuals' admissions, etc. only reinforced its conclusions.

That being said, your insight - *...not only do politicians/miltary folks always fight the last war, but so do anit-war activists, moral war theologians, etc.* 

Am reminded of an editorial by Mike Osenga in a business publication in November, 2004:

"All we want as our president, especially since we've descended into the abyss of semantics, is a person who is totally on our side on every single one of the 500 to 1000 multifaceted, complex issues.  Yet, a president who can still pop out perfect 15 second sound bites every time, never a word misspoken.  Plus play nice with our global allies when we feel like it.  That's all,  Thus, I wonder when the word, statesman, disappeared from our lexicon?"



Mr. Blackburn - you have the advantage of Monday morning quarterbacking.  Munich - those involved thought that it would resolve the threat;  most did not see Munich as the precursor for world war...those who did were not in favor of the appeasement (e.g. Churchill)

You state....*...this is hardly a Munich moment*.  Would suggest that this lies in the eyes of the beholder and you are making judgements based upon a purely western and european mindset.  We don't know what will happen if Assad is not warned, stopped, confronted.  That was one of the points in Mr. Steinfel's analysis.  In fact, Assad probably could work out an agreement to migrate to a place of safety.  You really don't know if *more carnage* can't change his mind?

Such good questions and thoughts. I wonder if I could add that American reluctant to enter into a limited strike in Syria aren't only reacting to the "miasma of suspicion, anger, and fixation on the last war," They are weighing the cost of another military incursion, however limited, with perhaps unforseen complications, against problems at home.

News images of Syrians writhing in the agonies of a gas attack are, at times, unwatchable and cry out to us. But so do the evils of elder abuse in our overcrowded nursing homes, innocents getting shot by stray bullets due to gang violence, the homeless mentally ill, and slow-motion eco-disasters such as the Hanford nuclear plant leakage, 


Sorry about previous comment. Can someone on the editorial staff delete it? (I wish there was some way to edit after posting.)

“I am, however, convinced that President Obama is sincerely struggling with questions of morality, far, far more so than did President Bush and his principal advisers in 2003.”

My thoughts and feelings precisely.

Bush had the advantage of the outrage over 9/11 that clouded all rationality by U.S. citizens. I think that we needed to lash out even if it meant going to war based on false information. 

In this situation re Syria I believe that Obama is motivated by humanitarian concerns.  I am also convinced that his enemies will never, ever believe that.

Interesting reflections. My read on the reluctance of the American public is that it has less to do with Iraq and mistrust of government. Americans do have a unique culture and this culture informs how they see the world. Americans are generous, idealistic but also pragmatic. As a whole, I think the lessons of Iraq, for Americans, is that it is very difficult to transform that part of the world. The US spent a lot of blood and treasure on trying to implant democracy, secular rule, and democratic institutions in Iraq. I was sympathetic to the neo-conservatives goal in that regard in Iraq. I really believed that this was possible and I thought that it was a laudable goal, worthy of support. And I do think, that it, at least in part, contributed to the Arab spring. I think now that I was naive and that it just is not that easy. 

I think that Americans have just flat out had enough of the mid-east. It is confusing, irrational (or at least the kind of rationality that is present there is difficult for most Americans to understand). And in this, they are correct. The boundaries of the countries and nations in that region are artificially imposed Western boundaries. And even if nations, by now, identify by way of nation state (e.g. Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Israeli, etc.), they are equally as identified by religious affiliation Sunni, Shia, Wahabii, and the myriad of groups and associations connected with those.

Added to this, Obama and company have articulated the most muddled and confused goals I have ever heard. It is punitive, limited and not aimed at regime change. But Assad is, at the same time, worse than Hitler and Hussein. It will embolden the opposition (do we want that??). Well yes, apparently there are "good guys" in the group. But they have refused to disassocate themselves from al Qaeda who are also fellow travellers. The goal is not regime change BUT the US will, in fact, continue to supply arms and training to the opposition (covertly). But the US will not actively try to bring these parties to the table to resolve differnces peacefully and democratically. The president has the constitutional authority to act but wants congress to pass resolution. But this resolution may or may not be binding. And on, and on, and on...... 

Peter, thanks for this post. It is clear that you are genuinely struggling with this. I know two other posters concur, but I am unable to see any parallel with this and Munich. Assad is seeking to save himself and has no mind to invade other countries. There is just no way that Syria is or will be as powerful as Nazi Germany. Further, France, England and the US were attacked in that war.  With all due respect the comparison is so far fetched. The other factor that is present is the volatility of the rebels who are showing substantial cruelty themselves. Kosova was quite different as the aggressor was more identifiable there. The rebels leave much to be desired. 

While there are no easy answers here the parallel with Iraq is a good one despite your qualms. That was a war where the US leaders acted without conscience and lied with a disdain without peer. Further, you do not give enough attention to the other genocides throughout the world. Our moral antenna is certainly low in that sphere. 

The good news is we have a pope of peace who is bringing people together and is acting on persuasion rather than domination. I don't believe that Assad will do chemical weapons again because he knows there will be a certain response. So this may be a positive result of the present debate. 

Thanks for this post.  I've seen so many posts online that imply that not intervening = peace, and what came to mind was the expression "peace for our time" from WWII.

Gerelyn:  I read the Grayson op-ed in the NYT to which you linked.  I saw Grayson on the Newshour the other night and he certainly is a forceful and cogent critic of any action by the U.S. in Syria.


But I was startled to see Grayson’s link in his op-ed to an article by Kenneth Timmerman in The Daily Caller suggesting that the Obama administration is conducting a disinformation campaign to pin on the Assad government a gas attack that was really conducted by the conspiratorial efforts of Turkey, Qatar and the Syrian rebels.


Timmerman is the author of Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs and The Party of Surrender, in which Timmerman claims that everything bad that we thought was true about George W. Bush and the Iraq War was really the result of a tremendously elaborate, covert disinformation campaign by CIA operatives loyal to and members of the Democratic Party, the party that I assume he is referring to in his title as “the party of surrender.”  It seems Timmerman has it in for Democrats and Democratic administrations. 


And his article on Obama and Syria is built upon the alleged claims of secret, unnamed sources and alleged documents that he doesn’t post or link to.  In other words, they have the same deficiencies of which Grayson complains so bitterly when it comes to the papers the Obama administration have made available to him.


Maybe Timmerman is onto something, but its hard to credit anything he says in light of the above.  And its unfathomable why Grayson would be directing his readers to Timmerman, so unfathomable that I thought there might be two Kenneth Timmermans and I was conflating them.  But it seems not.

During the Iraq war I learned that the way in which intelligence is filtered out to us is that first the US intelligence and government decide, given the information they have, what course of action they want to take, then they give whatever information will convince us to support their decision. The goal of releasing information is not to give us an objective view of the situation but to get us to agree with their already-made decision. That, I think, holds also for different conflicts.

The US leader is now different and, I hope, wiser, but that does not change the fact that I cannot trust that information released provides an objective picture. I could support Obama out of trust that he knows what he is doing, but I should not trust him because of knowledge revealed by his information gathering services that would justify his position.

 I don't have private information and don't understand the state of the civil war, but In this case the local civilians are begging us not to interneve! To my mind, that is a powerful, maybe overriding argument.

The other thing I learned during the Iraq war is that, when we don't see the long-term strategy of the military, we shouldn't assume that they are keeping their clever plans secret for their effectiveness: sometimes they simply don't have a plan. Forget evaluating chances of success (that's unfortunately a job for experts, shrouded with uncertaities). The fact that I cannot even conceive of a believable narrative that might unfold after a military action and would justify it suggests that action is premature.  

It seems to me that those two lessons from the Iraq war apply today as well. 

It seems to me that for now, giving humanitarian help to Syrian refugees and to the countries hosting them would be a great way to gain popularity in the region, to restore goodwill towards Americans, (to recruit informers), and to get more information on what is going on. It's not just a moral thing to do but also an investment for a potential future military action, should it ever become necessary.


I'm not completely sure of what to do.  The reason is because we (at least the public)  lack sufficient intelligence. 

But I also I wonder whether the assumptions of just war theory (JWT) are apposite for judging the new forms of war.  For starters, JWT it doesn't even consider the morality of *punitive* military action.  So far as I know "punitive war" is a new idea. So how to decide whether a Syrian air strike would be just? Can it really be right to do nothing about the barbarity going on there for lack of legal authority?

Urban warfare is very different from old mano-a-mano battlefield warfare.  Urban warfare presents the great problem of the moral status of civilians.  According to JWT civilians should be largely exempt as targets.  But it would seem that civilian casualties are bound to be great in urban warfare.  Remember the Siege of Leningrad? 642,000 civilian casualties, besides the million or so Russian soldiers.  Yet I daresay it was right for the Russians to oppose Hitler.   

Just when, if ever, does JWT *require* what is essentially vigilante action?  In the absence of UN approval, Syria certainly would be a vigilante act.  Surely, we *must sometimes* react violently against violence.   Martin Luther King, Jr. himself thought children must be defended with force.   Maybe this has influenced Pres. Obama's thinking.

The ethicists need to rethink JWT.

Now that I have read that the Syrian rebels have been burning entire Christian villages -it is not clear whether the inhabitants were also burned - I have concluded that the whole Muslim lot, Assad & his mob and the rebels and their mobs, are a bunch of murderous savages.  If there were a way to somehow extract the children, women, and Christians from Syria, I would say let the [adults] slaughter each other with abandon, and to Hell with them.

I've been reading about Rwanda and saw the same theory of action in a previous war influencing the next mentioned in a wikipedia article on the genocide there ...

"Fear of a repeat of the events in Somalia shaped US policy in subsequent years, with many commentators identifying the graphic consequences of the Battle of Mogadishu as the key reason behind the US's failure to intervene in later conflicts such as the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. After the battle, the bodies of several US casualties of the conflict were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by crowds of local civilians and members of Aidid's Somali National Alliance. According to the US's former deputy special envoy to Somalia, Walter Clarke: "The ghosts of Somalia continue to haunt US policy. Our lack of response in Rwanda was a fear of getting involved in something like a Somalia all over again."  President Clinton has referred to the failure of the U.S. government to intervene in the genocide as one of his main foreign policy failings, saying "I don't think we could have ended the violence, but I think we could have cut it down. And I regret it."


Jeff, thanks for the information about Timmerman's Daily Caller article.  I knew/know nothing about him.  I think there are many things we do not know about the Iraq war, including what those who claimed to oppose it really wanted the U. S. to do and why.  It may be that sort of information that is still (and always will be) too volatile to share with those who are expected to vote on this new venture.    

Grayson said:

"I don’t know who is right, the administration or The Daily Caller. But for me to make the correct decision on whether to allow an attack, I need to know. And so does the American public."


I too appreciate the clarity and breadth of Peter's reflections. I read them alongside those of Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica, Italy's leading newspaper "di sinistra."

After weighing the different possible approaches to the tragedy of Syria, Scalfari writes in this morning's paper:

non sono affatto indifferente, mi sento coinvolto nel dilemma, temo una guerra che chiama la guerra, ma credo anche che l'incolumità e i diritti dei cittadini siriani vadano difesi. Conclusione: non so scegliere tra Francesco e Obama.

I am by no means indifferent, I feel myself as intimately involved in the dilemma. I fear a war that calls for more war in return, but I also believe that the safety and the rights of the people of Syria should be defended. Conclusion: I don't know how to choose between Francis and Obama.

Conclusion: I don't know how to choose between Francis and Obama

He might consider international law. It is against international law to attack a sovereign country (when you have not been attacked and is acting in self defense) without

approval from the United Nations. In this instance, Italy, UK, Canada, et al. have refused to support military action. So there is not even a "coalition of the willing" and even that

is not quite the same as UN resoultion. Leadearship is about forging consensus and so far there has not been an international consensus let alone a national one. He does 

have consensus around "firm response" so they should think about what a firm response could or should be. There is no consensus (and pray God there will be no

majority vote) on declaring war (or whatever euphism it is that is used in the draft resolution before congress).

I too am grateful for Steinfels' comments. Peerhaps what I have to say will also be of some use.

The history of western involvement in the Middle East for the last century has been anything but noble. For one account of it, see Albert Hourani's "A History of the Arab Peoples." For a relevant recent report see, Akbar Ganji's "Who Is Khamenei?" in the present issue of "Foreign Affairs." What one finds is frequent imperialistic Western interventions and frequent betrayals of trust by the intervening Western powers.

Against that background I find it regrettable that part of President Obama's argument for intervening in Syria is that it is in our national interrest to do so. So long as the United States is not joined by enough allies in a military attack on Syria it will be hard to make the case that our intervention was not motivated in large part by our own "imperialistic" pursuit of our own national interests.

President Obama's unfortunate "red line" talk has, given the present lack of support by the UN or any representative array of international nations, has made it hard not to be regarded as the self-appointed( "imperialistic") determiner of when and where intervention is appropriate.

These concerns lead me to oppose unilateral, or near unilateral, military intervention by the U. S.


Bob Schwartz:  I certainly can understand your attitude.  What ever we do or don’t do, we can expect the Arab street, and some governments, too, to blame us for everything that is happening in the Middle East.  The official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority is running stories and opinion pieces claiming that the U.S. is behind the civil wars in Syria and Egypt and that our goal in Syria is to massacre as many Syrians as possible.  You can read about it here


The only way we can save the innocents in Syria is by invading and occupying it, which we aren’t about to do in a million years.  And neither is anybody else.


But I do think its possible, as I’ve already explained, to achieve the limited goal of deterring the further use of nerve gas.  And I think it is a worthy goal to maintain the regime of deterrence against the proliferation and use of WMD that the U.S. and the world have been building for 65 years.  And this may sound silly, but I think we should do it for the honor of mankind.  Someone needs to stand for the honor of mankind, even if only a little bit, in the midst of all this barbarity.


it seems across the whole region from Pakistan to Algeria there is a descent into savagery.  In Pakistan, groups are indiscriminately blowing up innocent children and old people and women and men to spread terror for the purpose of achieving political goals and acquiring or maintaining power.  They are doing it in Afghanistan.  And in Iraq.  And Syria.  And Lebanon.  And Yemen.  And Libya.  And Algeria.


There isn’t much we can do about it.  But where we can without too much risk to ourselves, maybe we should.  For the honor of mankind.


I agree with you about the need to halt the use of nerve gas; I am, frankly, unable to come up with a place to plant my feet as regards this bucket of worms.  I can only hope that, if Obama initiates a strike, it accomplishes what it needs to accomplish.  But I have grave doubts, as does evidently everyone else...

According to the Washington Post, President al-Assad of Syria will appear on US television Monday night. The interview has already been recorded by Charlie Rose.

Here in Boston it will be shown at 11 PM Eastern Time on WGBH.

The latest news are that the US are preparing a more significant military action, with more than 50 target locations, and that the groups of rebels are rapidly being controlled by Al-Qaeda. So what would "success" mean? If many targets are hit, Assad will be weakened and maybe Al-Qaeda will gain control of Syria - or at least they will be empowered to prolong the civil war for much longer. Is either of those outcomes what the US army wants?


But of course, either of both of those news items could be disinformation. We just don't know.

I'm missing the connection between the action and our response.  The govt used poison gas against it's citizens, so now we're going to drop bombs on those same citizens in protest?

I also felt a little schizophrenic in Churrch yesterday, praying that we not attack Syria.  It's not like I'm praying that others don't do some bad thing, I'm praying that we ourselves don't do it. We could just not do it, and then we wouldn't have to pray about it. 

I go to dotCommonweal every day and find it very informative because the discussions are typically enhanced by the participant's introduction of the moral dimension. However, I rarely participate because the conversations have usually run their course and the issues have been well explored by people better informed and more thoughtful than I.

This time it is different. I am 75 years old and I believe that apart from WWII, this proposed attack on Syria represents that most serious risk to world peace and American security that has occurred in my lifetime. Events like Viet Nam and Iraq are nothing in comparison to this.

As others have noted, historical analogies are always difficult. And while the public may be thinking about Iraq, the administration consistantly refers to Munich. This is a misreading of history. Better we think of Sarajevo in 1914 than Munich in 1938 - by no means a perfect analogy, but much closer to today"s reality.

It seems to me that the moral question of our military intervention is best analysed with reference to the probabilities. On the one hand, the act itself, our proposed air strike on Syria, is an action that will not only destroy material goods, but also will kill people. It is, by itself, an action that is intrinsically evil, so we can say that it is a matter not of probability, doubt or uncertainty that this action is immoral. 

On the other hand,  it is when we consider the consequences of our action that we leave the world of certainty and enter a world of uncertainty where the assessment of probabilities comes into play. Our government's apparent intent in undertaking this attack is to punish the Syrian government and dissuade them (and others) from the future use of biological/chemical weapons; and if we destroy enough material and kill enough people, there is a reasonably high probability that we will succeed. However, it is hard not believe that there is an equally high probability that Syria or its patrons (Iran, China, Russia et. al) would not retaliate by committing some proportionate or even disproportionately greater act of evil against us or our friends. And where does that lead?

We all know and we can imagine any number of retaliatory and escalating events that could cascade into serious trouble. (Imagine, for example, Iran and Syria flooding Isreali airspace with sarin ladened missiles) 

So it is the certainty of the immorality of the act itself coupled the very high risk that our action could lead to an uncontrolable arithmetic of death, that convinces me that we should not attack. 

About the possibility of a wider war, it probably won't happen unless one of the decision makers is actuslly insane.  Everyone sees the dangers, no doubt, and it would be to no one's advantage that there be a wider war.  For one thing, would any of the regimes not be threatened by outside radicals in such a situation?  in other words, who would want Al Quaeda operating in his counry?

Further, there might be some sort of shift in thinking in the Muslim block -- I read somewhere recently that the new president of Iran actually sent feelers out to Netanyahu (which that idiot rebuffed).  If Iran is thinking of talking to Israel, surely that's a sign that at least some of the radical Muslims are starting to see that constant war and threat of war  is to no one's advantage.  It might even be that the other M.E. countries would like to be rid of the likes of Assad.  They, after all, know him best, and as someone noted, he is worse than Hitler and Stalin.  At least they didn't use nerve gass on civilians.

I see Obama as a very cautious man and willing to compromise, but not as weak.  I don't even expect him to back down if Congress doesn't give him the OK.  If his strike is as well-planned as I expect it would be, then maybe, just maybe it might destroy the materiels targets cleanly.  If so, things might not turn out so badly as seems possible.   

There is definitely a new regime in Iran. Why it is taking so long for the West to see this is a mystery. If Iran can become a peace player would that not be of enormous help?

About the possibility of a wider war, it probably won't happen unless one of the decision makers is actuslly insane.

I disagree. The world can slide into a world war by an unhappy sequence of small individual decisions. Consider the start of WWI.

 Here is an excerpt from that does not seem to have made the news in the US so far.

German revelations

According to the German army  surveillance, as revealed by the Sunday newspaper Bild, Bashar al-Assad would probably not have personally approved the August 21 attack. Some senior members of the Syrian army "have regularly been asking  the presidential palace in Damascus, for about four months, for authorization for chemical attacks, but those requests were always denied, and the attack of August 21 was probably not been approved personally by Bashar al-Assad, "reports Bild. The Sunday edition of that popular daily newspaper relies on tapping carried out by a spy ship of the German army, the Oker, stationed near the Syrian coast.


In addition, the Bild am Sonntag wrote that the president of the German Intelligence Service (BND), Gerhard Schindler, recently testified before the Defence Committee of the German Parliament, saying that Assad could still hold up for a long time. The bloody civil war in Syria "could last years," he reportedly said to the elected. In addition, the Inspector General of the German Army, Volker Wieker purportedly explained to the same Committee that the al-Qaeda influence in the rebellion was rapidly growing. The Free Syrian Army, that is supported by the West, reportedly has lost military control, and the flood of deserters leaving the regular Assad army to join it is now zero, notably because the rebel groups close to al-Qaeda forces reportedly shoot them.

That's worrisome, to say the least.


Thank you, Peter for your thoughtful post.  I was feeling very lonely.  I was against the Iraq war because I did not believe that Saddam had WMD, or if he had, he and his army did not have the wherewithal to disperse them.  Reasons?  The U.S. and Britain had been doing flyovers in Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War and faith groups and peace groups had been visiting Iraq over that time period to report back that the sanctions the U.S. and allies had imposed on Iraq were harming its citizens, Nothing much seemed to be working inside the countrym e,g. dependable electricity.   It seemed to me that Iraq was imploding slowly and was not capable of initiating WMD.   I am conflicted about the Syrian situation for all the reasons that others have stated.  With one difference.  Giving a pass to Assad on gassing his people seems like an open invitation for him to repeat it or for others to try it.  140 nations signed the aggreement to not stockpile or use chemical weapons, thus it became an international norm, not just because of the "red line" comment by Obama.   Syria, Egypt and Israel did not sign on.  In this case, I reluctantly agree that a limited strike is a reasonable - punishment, caution, warning - whatever word one wants to use- to mean: don't do this or you will face consequences. 

The Colonel who was Colin Powell's chief of staff [name?] gave us a military analysis I never heard before. Chemical weapons like naphalm and posphorus are stlil used. The reason that 120 countries signed up on  the chemical gas banns  were not that they was so horrendous but that they were both not easy to deliver, and that they blow back on your own forces. it was agreed by all military they were basically not useful. That seems to detract from 'we gotta strike because of the horror of gas Naphalm and flamethrowers are at least as horrible.

The comments here are so thoughtful and heartfelt that I fear adding anything may only lower the level of the discussion!  Perhaps I should merely say “thank you” and shut up. 

 Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts. 

 Minor one on Alan Grayson:  The Democratic congressman from Florida was admirably direct and forceful on the PBS Newshour, and his complaints in the New York Times about the availability of U.S. intelligence to those like himself who must vote on this action certainly demand a change of policy or an explanation.  Likewise, the German media story of German intelligence reports mentioned by Claire.

However, on the Newshour, Grayson said more than once This is none of our business.  If this is indeed none of our business then the accuracy of the intelligence doesn’t really matter.  Doesn’t this illustrate the problem of appearing to weigh arguments when in fact the conclusion is foregone?

Minor point on Munich: I didn’t propose any parallel between Assad’s use of nerve gas and Munich.  Indeed I criticized such simplified analogies.  I am not as aware as others apparently are that Kerry or  other administration officials have frequently compared Assad to Hitler and the present crisis to Munich, but if so I regret it.  It’s a detour from the core of their case.  If I have drawn a parallel it is that between the blanket refusal by intelligent, well-intentioned people to give serious consideration, in the wake of World War I, to any use of military force and a mood I feel emerging in the United States.

Not so minor one on just war teaching:  I couldn’t agree more, Ann, that ethicists need to be constantly rethinking just war teaching, and in fairness a number of them have been doing exactly that, addressing everything from the emergence of non-state actors to humanitarian intervention and the “right to protect.”   But ironically just war teaching, at least as I read it, once did include punitive actions as a just cause, but as kings, dynasties, and vassals gave way to the Westphalian system of sovereign nation states and as just-war theorists worried about abuses of the teaching, the tendency has been to limit just cause to defense against aggression.  Punishment for violating an international norm seems to presuppose, as you suggest, an international authority. 

 Which also brings me to the points raised by Bernard Dauenhauer, George D, and others about national interest and international law.  Obviously it is to the national interest of any nation not intent on itself employing  chemical weapons to maintain the bar against their use.  In this sense, Obama’s appeal to national interest is quite logical.  It does ring false to many people, especially in the Middle East, because of America’s distance from Syria and ability to defend itself and because of the record of Western imperialism.  On the other hand, Obama is speaking both to politicians of the “what’s in it for us” persuasion and to experts of the “realist” school, for whom national interest, understood in virtually material terms of national security and economic well-being, is the lode-stone of international affairs.  But it is one thing to insist that it is in America’s interest to see a longstanding internationally recognized limit on chemical warfare upheld; it is something further to take military means to uphold it unilaterally.

Here we face the extensively debated ambiguity of international law.  It is law and, as long as there is no international authority to enforce it, it is not quite law. It currently operates in a growing network of institutions like the dysfunctional United Nations, the much better International Court of Criminal Justice, the rather effective World Trade Organization, etc., etc.;  but the final say on whether to abide by or ignore the decisions of these bodies remains with sovereign states. 

Law, to be law, requires (a) consistency and neutrality among parties, in this case states, and (b) enforcement.  The United States is both upholding and violating (a) while it serves (b).  It is upholding (a) by insisting that Syria should not be exempt from the norm against chemical weapons.  It is violating (a) by claiming a special status itself in upholding this norm.  And it is serving (b) by demonstrating that serious consequences will follow from Syria’s violation of (a).

Not a simple picture, but frankly my hope for the evolution of international law rests with some kind of dialectic about which I can only make judgments on a case by case basis.  The norm against internal genocidal or mass killings was upheld by Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, though it violated international law by invading a sovereign neighbor.  On balance, this self-appointed enforcement probably advanced the cause of international law, while standing by would have severely hurt it. 

In the absence of any international enforcing agency, it is crucial that the U.S. create at least an approximation of one by winning the explicit support (not necessarily the participation) of a broad range of nations.  Maybe we will.  At the moment our failure to do so looms largest to me as a reason for not acting.

Finally, I wonder whether the fundamental question here is whether we as a people or as leaders of the people can contemplate any military action as realistically “limited.”   If we cannot, if we have only choices between running a very high risk of all-out war in getting entangled in regime change, on the one hand, or never acting except by high-minded declarations and hope in moral persuasion, on the other, where does that really leaves us? 

will this action kill only Assad and those in his government who participated in the chemical attack?


There is a glaring omission in this essay.  Nowhere does Mr. Steinfels mention the fact that Christians in the Mideast are unanimous in their opposition to American strikes in Syria.  They know, from bitter experience, that the only real alternative to the Assad regime is an Islamist regime, and they also know that an Islamist regime would be disastrous for them.  Concern over the fate of Mideast Christians was a driving force behind the Holy See's active diplomatic effort against the Iraq War, and it is a driving force behind Pope Francis' efforts today.  Surely an essay for a Catholic magazine dealing with the prospect of war on Syria should consider what Syrian Catholics (and the Catholics in neighboring countries) think about the prospect of such a war.

Thanks, Peter.  One more added note from a PBS show last week and repeated this week-end hosting the UN head of refugees in the Middle East.

To date, estimated 2 million people have fled Syria (she described Syria as a second tier nation in the world; significant middle class; educated populance; thriving economy/new businesses.  These are the people who are fleeing Syria and which makes this different from Rawanda.  She also described Syria as a mosiac - Sunnis have fled to Jordan; Kurdish/Armenians to Turkey; Shia, others to Lebanon.  Estimaed 700,000 in Lebanon; 500,000 in Jordan (one camp has 200,000 called Zatari in an area with no water...Jordan is the fourth driest country in the world; the UN is trucking in water; Zatari is now the 4th largest city in Jordan; 200,000 in Iraq; 500,000 in or near the border with Turkey.

These countries are allies of the US and yet are being destabilized as we speak.  Estimated 5,000 Syrians flee every day.  This situation is another very significant component in this analysis and debate.  It can be a sub-set to US interests; etc.  The UN director did mention that the administration is aware, is supporting, and has mentioned the refugee situation compared to previous administrations and the Iraq war in which the 4 mil refugees were never mentioned or considered. (argument for international law and humanitarian grounds - version of R2P)

Finally, do believe that the administration has to be more forthcoming with proof and then outline the steps during and after a surgical strike.  Would also add that the UN investigators need to issue their report. 

Anne and others have mentioned that the JWT needs to change - one element of that debate is the R2P laws passed in 2005 - *responsibility to protect*.  Kosovo is an example of this; while Rawanda is an example of outright failure.  Unfortunately, this sector of international law is not well defined or developed.


In his comment, Thorin said, “Christians in the Mideast are unanimous in their opposition to American strikes in Syria.”  John Allen, writing in NCR, acknowledges that opposition, but also cites criticism of those who express it.  Syria’s Christians, says Allen,

may be no fans of the regime of President Bashar Assad, but they generally prefer it to what they see as the likely alternative -- rising Islamic fundamentalism and Iraq-style chaos, in which religious minorities such as themselves would be among the primary victims.

"We heard a lot about democracy and freedom from the U.S. in Iraq, and we see now the results -- how the country came to be destroyed," said Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo in a recent interview. "The first to lose were the Christians of Iraq." . . . .. . . .

In late August, the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch of Antioch in Syria, Gregory III Laham, pointedly asserted that any military intervention by the United States in his country would be a "criminal act."

Such an assault, Laham said, "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." He warned it would be no less serious than the use of chemical weapons.

Over the years, Laham has been seen as strongly pro-Arab and pro-Assad, but he's not an isolated voice. On Aug. 26, Audo told Vatican Radio that a Western attack could trigger wider conflict.

"If there is an armed intervention, that would mean, I believe, a world war," Audo said.

In a separate interview in late April, he said Syria's Christian minority, which represents roughly 10 percent of the population of 22.5 million, "all are with President Assad."

That position has been so consistent from the Christian leadership in Syria that Jesuit Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, the Italian missionary and anti-Assad activist who disappeared in Syria in late July, accused them of being "co-opted."

"Unfortunately, the Syrian regime has been very clever in using a certain number of clergymen, men and women, for its propaganda in the West, in which it represents itself as the only and ultimate bastion defending Christians persecuted by Islamic terrorism," Dall'Oglio wrote in an open letter to Francis in April.

I read dotCommonweal daily but have only commented once, and that some time ago.  However, your post really grabbed my attention.

It seems to me that the story of Fr. Dall'Oglio is the perfect example of why Syrian Christians support Assad against the rebels. After all, it is the jihadi rebels who kidnapped Fr. Dall'Oglio, despite him being strongly on the side of the opposition. His kidnapping and possible execution at the hands of the rebels demonstrates clearly to Syrian Christians that there is no possibility of an alliance between Christian and rebel.

In the end, the same clergy and religious whom Fr. Dall'Oglio so strongly criticized were correct in their analysis of the rebellion. His dismissal of their warnings as government propaganda led directly to his entering rebel territory and being kidnapped. 


As everybody knows, there is a law of unintended consequences. I read Peter's posts as pointing out that they can follow both action and inaction.  

Like Mr. Ladner II had wondered about making a comparison to the start of the First World War, not in the details, of course, but as an illustration of how quickly things can spiral out of control. Here is the first paragraph of a recent review in the London Review of Books of two works on WW I:

The European continent was at peace on the morning of Sunday, 28 June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne, and his wife, Sophie Chotek, arrived at Sarajevo railway station. Thirty-seven days later, it was at war. In its complexity and the speed with which it escalated, the ‘July Crisis’ of 1914 is without parallel in world history. Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated that morning in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb students acting for a shadowy Belgrade-based ultranationalist network. The Austrian government in Vienna resolved to serve an ultimatum on its Serbian neighbour. Berlin promised support for Austria on 5 July. Encouraged by Paris, Russia opted to defend its Serbian client by mobilising against Austria and Germany. Unsatisfied by the Serbian reply to its ultimatum, Austria declared war on Serbia. Germany mobilised against France and Russia. France asked London for help. On 4 August 1914, following the German breach of Belgian neutrality, Britain entered the war.

It wasn't his red line-it's the "civilized"  worlds red line. For once let's use the military for good;to stop a dictator from murdering his people for having risen up to to end a tyranical regime.In Iraq we staged that scene of showing some Iraqi teens dismantling the statue of their dictator Saddam  Hussein. Though the Iraqis had not risen up to topple him;there were no villages being bombed daily by Saddam Hussein or violence in the streets by a military crack down on people rising up aginst him, prior to our invasion there.Here there IS a military crackdown by their tyranical dictator taking place for 2 years now. Our military could be used for truly alturistic  purposes for once -to come to the defense of the opressed. We should and could act according to our professed view of ourselves-the first and foremost defenders of freedom and human rights and the greatest opponents of tyranny on earth.Unlike Iraq, where the people did not ask to be "liberated" ,and where no wmd's were found-in Syria both facts are true-he  possesses and has used wmd's and the people have asked for help to be liberated from a dictator.The Syrians are NOT Iraqis, or Egyptians or Libyans[who in spite of one  post revolutionary militia who attacked  Americans in Benghazi and contrary to the anti Arab /Muslim  propaganda, most Libyans were and are grateful for our aid in toppling their dictator.]Though anti Americanism is rife among Egyptians [ because of our histprical support of their dictator and one sided support of Zionist expansion perhaps] it is not historically rife in Russian backed Syria. Never has been.We do have a moral obligation-we who define ourselves as the greatest defenders of the opressed the world has ever had-and who have in the Mid East and elsewhere used our military for either vengence or self serving interests,we can here and now live up to our own definition of ourselves.I believe the Syrians WOULD be grateful  to us and would not push for a fundamentalist Islamic state.That is not their history ;its not who they are historically. After all the harm we've done in the Mid East and after  our own self serving rhetoric about out values and the goodness of our deeds, let's for once make that a reality.

Fr. Joe - in a broad sweeping sense, July 1914 and the Syrian dilemma today can be compared.  But, read the book and the historian aptly documents that the situations between July 1914 and Syria are like comparing apples to oranges.

There are categories that share some resemblances:

- July, 1914 - Europe was in the last throes of dying monarchies and their inter-related alliances.  The book, July, 1914; if anything, highlights the dysfunctionality of these monarchs and their cabinets.  For example, both the Rusian Tsar and the German king were cousins and both had unbalanced personalities supported by leadership that also had dysfunctional attributes.  If anything, comparison can be made between Assad and these dysfunctional leaders.  Not much is being said today but Assad assumed his leadership position through happenstance - we don't know how much he is impacted by his uncles, family ties, generals but can imagine. Like the monarchies of 1914, common good; even national aims come second or third place behind the ruling monarchy.  The author of the book actually makes a documented case that asserts that the dysfunctional Russian monarchy created and caused WWI; obviously, aided and abetted by the reactions of the all but dead Austrian-Hungarian dual monarchy experiment, German megolamia, British evasions, and French conspiracies.

If anything, 1914, like today in the Middle East, was a moment in history when one *governing system - monarchy* was dying and democratic forms of government were ascending.  In this transition period, war resulted.  We experience the same today - the Middle East's *Arab Spring* and the dying of age old ruling families (Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Gulf nations) and the attempts at democratic elections has created a vacuum, a transition period. In this vacuum; just like Europe in 1914, we see extremists groups (some religious driven, some political ideologies, etc.), nationalism, etc. destabilizing bankrupt current political systems.

One significant difference - in 1914, Serbia was a small, insignificant nation with a very small military.  Serbia was not threatening anyone; was not using chemical weapons; etc.  Assad has a significant military with technological advanced weapons including chemical weapons (there is no comparison to 1914 at this level).  Assad's civil war is destabilizing the nations it borders; he is killing his own people.  (again, no comparison to 1914 Serbia).  Assad has and may again violate international laws on the use of chemical weapons, cluster bombs, landmines. 

July, 1914 documents how already existing alliances and national ambitions took an extremist assassination event and allowed it to spin out of control resulting in WWI. The conditions for the Serbian dilemma had been in place for years - there had already been at least three Balkan wars since 1900 causing resentments, unresolved border conflicts, heightened ethnic/religious differences.

OTOH, guess some comparisons could be made:

- Middle East is comparable to the Balkans of the early 20th century

- Middle East nations, like eastern Europe, had frequent governmental changes; forms of dictatorships, ethnic/religious wars creating extremist groups, movements, etc.

- What is interesting - Serbia's primary defender was Russia in 1914;  Serbia was not able or was unwilling to control extremism.  Today, Syria's primary defender and weapons supplier is Russia.  In 1914, Russia lied, even to its allies, about mobilization, gaining support from France (which had its own agenda) and Britain. It is that *lie* and mobilization that caused WWI.   Today, Russia makes no effort to join an international effort for a ceasefire; you have China at the edges (sort of like France in 1914); Russia ignores reality.

Any way, just some thoughts.  Biggest difference is that Syria today is no Serbia in 1914.  The comparison would have to be Syrian extremist groups take and use chemical weapons against a neighboring country and that country begins to marshall a response.  If that was the case today, don't think that there would be much debate about an international response.  Rather, we have a new challenge in the late 20th century and early 21st century - what does the world do when international law is broken?  What does the world do when dictators kill their own peoples?  What does the world do in the face of genocide, religious extremism, etc.


Alan Grayson is right to invoke Ronald Reagan's dictum ["Trust, but verify"] in demanding that the Obama administration provide all the intelligence to the Congress in advance of their taking any vote to intervene in the Syrian civil war.

The skeptics are right about any intervention into this Syrian mess.  All the parties to this conflict are equally grotesque.

It seems that those who do have access to the intelligence on the chemical attack support the retaliatory attack on Syria.  California Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee - no war-hawk by any strech of imagination - has none of the reservations about a retaliatory attack on Syria that some on this blog have expressed. 

Americans need to put this Syrian atrocity of using chemical weapons on their own people in some historical perspective - and for some of us, into personal terms.  Americans have been dealing with this issue of chemical weapons for well over a century - in every conflict during this horrible century of war.

My mother's older brother, Annunziato, was a very young dough-boy during WW1.  He suffered a gas attack.  Uncle "Newtzy," as we called him, recovered from his physical injuries and returned to his small town in Western Maryland to live out his life.  But, he was never the same after that.  Withdraw, moody, incommunicative, poor at relationships, unable to keep his marraige and family together.  My whole family has suffered from the after effects of that chemical attack on my uncle in France long ago.

After a century of fighting, after thousands of deaths and casualties sacrificed, for the prohibition of these chemical weapons which inflict an unspeakable horror on all life, are Americans now going to get squeamish about bring this thug Assad to justice?

I understand that we Americans are rightly gun-shy after our history of the attack on Iraq - sold to us by liar President and Vice President.  Americans have good reason to be war weary after more than a decade of senseless war.  Trust, but verify!  

I sorry, but it comes off as quibbling to me when I hear from some that the US does not have completely clean hands when it comes to chemical weapons.  But, isn't that the point???

Yet, I would speculate that much of the opposition to Obama retaliating against Assad, from especially the usually bellicose, chicken-hawk but military service adverse Republicans, has more to do with the possibility of contriving a scenario where they can now find the legal grounds to impeach the Kenyan socialist in the White House.

BTW, PS:  I would posit that the reason the "juvenillity of [Jon Stewart's] humor" positively resonnants with his audience is that Stewart's silly satire is commenserate with the banality of cable news anchors responses to the Syrian atrocities which does in fact resemble a penis-size contest. 

Peter S. --

I'm glad to hear that the ethicists are working on the problems of war.  If only there were a new Aristotle!  Thank you for the correction about punitive warfare.  I suppose it made some sense in the days when kings were considered to be the anointed of God and were thought to have special powers.  Unfortunately, as Aristotle says somewhere, monarchies are the best system of government -- but only when the monarchs are good and wise.

It seems to me that with the advent of democracies the idea seems to be evolving  that there are still single governments (we call them super-powers) which attempt to fulfill the ancient  function of monarchs when the super-powers (supposedly) act for in the cause of justice by initiating/taking unilateral action such Obama is threatening.  Such a prerogative could be called a superpower/monarch's powers/duties to punish evil and invent new laws when the common good demands it.  But it seems to me that super-powers are generally no wiser than kings, so the basic system remains inadequate -- we still need some mechanism to check the super-powers when they act badly or unwisely.


Since Ann brought it up. The president of Rwanda makes a case for monarchy that seeks to improve the lives of its citizens. Kagame is not that benovelent at times. But he has certainly been the best thing for Rwanda.

It's time for Arab Christians to wean themselves off of  their addiction to supporting Mid East dictators.[I speak as an Arab Christian myself;originally my family was from Aleppo Syria,descended from the early Christians.Of course I'm here so I've never experienced persecutionfor being Christian]. It might have made ethical and strategic sense during the last century of colonialis [where Chrisitans were privileged] and  post colonial cold war days when the masses had not yet  risen up to topple these dictators, but when the people rise up  to topple opressive regimes ,Christians are on the wrong side of history and morality to be allied with them.Christians have the right to demand equal rights AND democracy and to be players in the forming of post dictatorship governments but to take the easy way out and  simply side with dictators on the grounds that that Muslims have resorted to perseciting them is not suffiecent reason to want tyranical regimes in place.Perhaps if truth be told they are being persecuted for supporting dictators who oppress Muslim people.Claiming that all these Muslim rebels in Syria or throughout the Arab spring uprisings are muslim fundamentalists hell bent are ridding the Mid East of Christians is a false smearing of their neighbor.Though shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

It's time for Arab Christians to wean themselves off of  their addiction to supporting Mid East dictators.[I speak as an Arab Christian myself;originally my family was from Aleppo Syria,descended from the early Christians.Of course I'm here so I've never experienced persecutionfor being Christian]. It might have made ethical and strategic sense during the last century of colonialis [where Chrisitans were privileged] and  post colonial cold war days when the masses had not yet  risen up to topple these dictators, but when the people rise up  to topple opressive regimes ,Christians are on the wrong side of history and morality to be allied with them.Christians have the right to demand equal rights AND democracy and to be players in the forming of post dictatorship governments but to take the easy way out and  simply side with dictators on the grounds that that Muslims have resorted to perseciting them is not suffiecent reason to want tyranical regimes in place.Perhaps if truth be told they are being persecuted for supporting dictators who oppress Muslim people.Claiming that all these Muslim rebels in Syria or throughout the Arab spring uprisings are muslim fundamentalists hell bent are ridding the Mid East of Christians is a false smearing of their neighbor.Though shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

I'm having a very difficult time coming to grips with the fact that today most Americans want us to do nothing about Assad's gassing of men ,women and children.I can't believe that after the "never again" ethos that we proclaimed after the holocaust, so called decent "folk" -today ,now can acknowledge that a dictator has gassed innocent people including children and still  believe we should stay on the side lines. A  let em all kill each otherbecause they're Muslims after all is the hateful ethos that prevails.This is what it amounts to Assad is probably very aware the American public opinion has been this indifferent at best and gleeful at worst  at seeing muslims kill muslims[as many on the internet and even in mainstream media were expressing such indifference or satisfaction since the start of this syrian uprising and crackdown].So those who say he would not dare gas people are mistaken as he correctlyassessed that no one would care.Hope the more conscious leaders prevail on this. The hawkish public was wrong morally and strategically about iraq and they're wrong morally and i believe stategically on thier dovishness[ironic word here as there is nothing peacefu or noblel in their unwillingness to want to stop Assa'slaughter taking place there] on Syria. .Someone said that when we see nazis again they will not appear with swatstikas and marching militantly through the streets but will llook like regular decent smiling "folk".like sarah palins[let allah sort it out] and sean hannity and all these Americans who have no problem with a dictator gassing -not even soldiers which the world rejected when that was done on world war 1-but  gassing of civilians! Unbelievable!I did not think i would see such a day but i guess with at least 10years of anti muslim hate propaganda cranked up incessently over our media-and by many of our politicians-i should not be surprised.People even today after the holocaust can be indoctrinated to see the gassing of men women and children by a dictator and still say-it's not our problem!Unbelievable!

Not on the citizens;on the military installations where  soldiers as well as weapons or infrastructure for the use of  weapons may be.Right now the civilians have been begging for help as they get bombed relentlessly by their own governemnt. I believe that even if there is inadvertant civlian casualties-if that regime is toppled-the syrians would be grateful for our help.They are being killed now with no end in sight for them.If collateral civilian deaths result from our intervention-at least there is a light at the end of the tunnel for them as they would be free.-if we topple Assad. Now it's more murder of civilians with no future except more deaths and more tyranical opression.

@ Ann Olivier: I can't agree with your false equivalency of "super-power" and "monarchies" language.

There are now really only two super-powers in world politics.  One, China is an economic super-power [which btw is showing a few cracks these days] mainly by virtue of its enormously over-sized population and economy.  And the other, the USA is a military super-power [which under-grids for now our economic standing the world].  Others, like India, Brazil, Japan and Indonesia are growing-up fast, but are still in their adolescent spurts.

Russia has supplanted its Soviet communism for a particularly vicious strain of state-supported capitalistic oligarchies based primarily on its energy sectors.  [That sounds too much like national socialism for me - Who would have thought that the nation primarily responsible for defeating the Nazis now resembles them the most?]  Dark and sinister forces still stalk the Russian consciousness.

Actually, what is occuring now in the Arab world is the direct result of a world order based on monarchy and nation-state entities.  The Arab world, defined by centuries of colonialism and economic exploitation, has never evolved into anything resembling democracies.  Hence, conflict has reigned in that part of the world since the days of the Industrial Revolution when European "powers" divvied up Arab countries [really, so they could exploit Arab oil reserves] and the Balfour Declaration.

Arab societies are stuck between ancient tribalism and religious fanatacism.  This whole Shia vs Sunni thing [partially as it plays-out in Syria today] is roughly analogus to the religious wars between Catholic and Protestant societies that ravaged Europe for most of three centuries.  

The Muslim world has never experienced an equivalent "Renaissance" or "Protestant Reformation" that opened the West to democracy and economic development, however uneven that progress has been.  [Think what Europe was like about 700 years ago: pretty grim and bloody! - Our American Revolution born of the Enlightenment rejected that world, with very good reason!]   

The only "modern" democratic secular society in the Muslim world that has experienced any economic success, that works, is Turkey thanks mostly to the enlightened, but brutal, Mustafa Ataturk, who forcibly wrenched-out Ottoman imperialism from their culture.

Ideally, the West's role in these formative years of the "Arab Spring" should be to help them avoid the worst of our tragic mistakes:  religious wars, pogroms, Inquisitions, crusades, economic exploitation of the working poor.  

Rather than being their policeman, the US and the West should be the Muslim world's friend and partner encouraging them, cautioning them, rejoicing in their victories over political oppression and economic exploitation.  We must tolerate their mistakes and failures.  But never excuse their genocide and fasicism.

My own theory is that IF the West ended it's addiction to Arab oil, many of these vexing issues between Muslim societies would resolve themselves much more easily.  Of course, Israel must make a lasting peace with the Palestinians.  

But since the Arabs can't drink their oil, if the West no longer covets the oil, their economies and politics would have to evolve to support modern sensibilities rather than bloody autocratic oligarchies - like in Egypt.  MLK was right:  The Arch of the Moral Universe is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice.  So it will be for Muslims too! 

Jim J. ==

I don't think that super-powers and monarchies are equivalent.  I think they're somewhat analogous.


Russia is talking about having the U. S. oversee the stockpile of Syrian weapons, and other nations, e.g., England, are agreeing.  Assad might talk.   See CNN.

Francis again leads by telling all of us to look at the Cross of Christ for the answer. Even many Muslims are awed by this pope. After so many centuries of celebrating Charlemagne a pope is bringing across the true message of Jesus. All that just war theory begat a series of rationalizations and war was glorified. Comparing this to the Holocaust is so misleading. People are not sitting on the sidelines as they did then. The pope is showing the way out of this militaristic thinking.

It seems to me that the whole notion of WMD is misguided.  What makes their use so much more immoral than buring Dresden in WWII, using napalm in Vietnam, bombing with a B2 or for that matter mistargeting with drones? (Not to mention nuclear weapons).  So why create a new level of crisis in Syria, when the existing problem was consequential in its own right?

About the use of chemical weapons ....

"The main reason for the legal prohibitions of the use of chemical weapons is that even purely military uses of such weapons are more likely to be disproportionate in the harms they inflict on civilians than the use of conventional weapons. This is because weather conditions can cause even a precisely targeted chemical attack to harm or kill innocent bystanders a considerable distance from the target area. So the moral reason for the prohibitions is primarily to protect civilians from being harmed as a side effect of attacks on enemy forces.

But the Syrian regime's aim in attacking residential areas with chemical weapons was precisely to kill civilians. There is therefore only one reason why it might have been slightly less seriously wrong if the regime had killed and injured an equivalent number of civilians using conventional weapons instead. This is that a massacre with conventional weapons would not have challenged the valuable legal prohibitions of chemical attacks. Thus, the only additional reason to attack Syria that derives from the regime's use of chemical weapons is to deter future uses by Syria and others by enforcing the prohibitions (even though Syria is not legally subject to two of them)."


I embrace the long-standing pacifist tradition of the Catholic Church.  I think Pope Francis's statements on Syria call the Church to be prophetic and renounce the idols of militarism and stand for justice and nonviolence.  Sending cruise missiles to Syria is not the only possible response to Assad's criminal violence. 

Even accepting a just war or, better, just violence tradition -- there is absolutely no possible way to justify Obama's plan to launch cruise missiles and bombs towards innocent people.  To believe in the myth of "surgical strikes" is the sin of idolatry, plan and simple.  Cruise missiles and bombs will kill innocent people.  It can not be avoided.

I would find myself much less opposed to military options if the option proposed was something akin to a police action, ie, entering a country with the express intent to stop the commission of crimes, to arrest the war criminals, confiscate illegal weaponry, etc.  But that is not even remotely being proposed.  Obama plan pretends war can be surgical and clean and not cost US lives. (again idolatrous myth-making). 



Yep. The Russian proposal saves the day. Everybody gets to save face. The Russians get to keep their port and their allies plus the chemical weapons are gone which means that the Islamists who cause trouble for Russia in some of their provinces will have less of a chance to get them. Assad stays in power and gets to act like he is not interested in these kinds of weapons. There is going to have to be inspectors to verify which means that an international force is going to be needed to stabilize the country while these inspections occur. (that will mean some US boots on the ground but part of peace-keeping mission not war). Obama gets to say that without his insistence on threat of force this would never have happened. And congress does not have to vote and embarras the president with a no vote.

A good day for diplomacy!

It is a promising possibility. I certainly had not thought of it at all, but it is clever. This is why it is so good to not rush to military action. It gives people time to talk, to discuss the problem with one another, (to pray and fast), to analyze the problems, to think creatively and have some ideas to unknot the situation. It gives a chance to diplomacy. One might say that it gives a chance for an inspiration from the Holy Spirit.


Here is the challenge though. Words mean things. If we are serious when we say that diplomacy and dialogue is important, then we have to be just as committed to following through with agreements around solutions as following through with threats. This means a protracted engagement in Syria (costs $$$$$), talking to the "opposition", levelling with the American people around all the games the US has been playing in terms of fighting a proxy war, being very transparent around who we are supplying arms to and why, examining where the chemical weapons came from in the first place. There was an arguement that Hussein had moved the supply to Syria in the build up to Iraq war and this was why he was blocking inspectors. This shows why once the WMD genie is out of the botttle, it is hard to put it back in. So, there really were WMDs in Iraq but getting them secured is like playing whack a mole. Securing the stockpile now is going to mean ensuring that the rebels do not have any either and they may be very hesitant to give them up as that is their leverage against Assad who has more conventional forces. Good news for Kerry is that he will have more opportunities to dine at fancy restaurants with Assad!

Thanks for the info Crystal.  That said, I still believe the exaggerated fear of WMD is irrational.  Even in WWI, where they were used the most extensively, they were largely ineffective because they are difficult to control, rapidly disperse and easily defended against.  Their value only comes from surprise and fear.  FYI, below is a brief assessment of their WWI impact.

The killing capacity of gas, however, was limited – only four percent of combat deaths were caused by gas. Gas was unlike most other weapons of the period because it was possible to develop effective countermeasures, such as gas masks. In the later stages of the war, as the use of gas increased, its overall effectiveness diminished. 

Peter: That was a very thoughtful essay. Over the past ten years, I have been reading heavily in the field of America First, and the efforts of many to keep us out of World War II. I would like to remind Commonweal readers of the following:

Through the years from June 1939 to April 1942, Fr. Charles E. Coughlin's Social Justice newspaper was the leading anti-war newspaper, promoting especially the America First movement led by Charles Lindberg and the Archbishop of Dubuque, Francis Beckman, a prominent and outspoken defender of Fr. Coughlin.


For Coughlin, his writers and readers, and probably a majority of Americans at the time, there was an intimate connection between finance and war, and war and social engineering. Among the leading anti-war Senators of the time who wrote for Social Justice was Minnesota’s Ernest Lundeen, who died in an August 1940 plane crash, as would his anti-war successor 60 years later, Sen. Paul Wellstone.


Coughlin also supported the Republican Congressman from Milwaukee, Lewis Dominic Thill, who, before he lost his election in 1942, was urging Congress to pass legislation to investigate the extent to which “foreign agents” create, publish and broadcast pro-war propaganda, in books, newspapers, radio and the movies.


Offering his bill on April 18, 1940, Rep. Thill spoke to his colleagues words that have an eerie relevance today:


“The seriousness of the situation resulting from the dissemination of war propaganda in the United States cannot be over-emphasized. Much propaganda material appears in the newspapers; it is heard over the radio; it is mailed to the office and the home; it comes to the desks of Members of Congress every day. How much of this information is false cannot be gauged by the average person. Needless to say, much of this propaganda is a skillful misrepresentation of facts, some of it has an element of deceit; some of it is a deliberate statement of untruth, and most of it can be characterized as a vicious and vile fraud upon the American people. Congress should take immediate steps to eradicate this evil....


“The minds of American citizens are being warped by propaganda....” (Social Justice, May 20, 1940)


Social Justice was the antithesis of Henry Luce's LIFE, founded eight months after Social Justice, in September 1936. Each cost ten cents, and each boasted a circulation around a million. But whereas Luce championed a “New American Century,” where an Anglo-American partnership ruled Central Asia (all the “Stans” where the U.S. is bogged down today), and argued the necessity of controlling Mesopotamia’s and Persia’s oil, Social Justice warned such an alliance would doom the American Republic.


Week after week, Social Justice exposed those individuals and corporations who would profit from war, who funded pro-war propaganda in newspapers and cinema. The August 19, 1940 Social Justice reported that the treasurer of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies was Frederick C. McKee, who was also the treasurer and chairman of the finance committee of the National Casket Company! Another of the “leading lights” on the Committee to Defend America was Henry Breckinridge, a prominent New York attorney, the director of Aeronautical Securities, Inc, which had invested nearly $630,000 in 21 aviation companies, including Douglas Aircraft, Curtis-Wright, Lockheed, Glenn Martin, etc. One of the "proofs" Coughlin offered his readers in early 1940 that the United States was preparing for war is that the Government was buying large quantities of condoms.


Around the same time, editor-in-chief Louis B. Ward published a series of essays – “the Rise of the Guilds,” “Usury in History,” and other historical subjects – all well worth reprinting today – including the “Causes of Modern Wars,” which he listed as five: Exaggerated Nationalism, Economic Imperialism, Militarism, The Secret Treaty and Propaganda. Ward reminds us, “[E]mpires have been stopped cold in their historic tracks when they sought to violate the principle of nationality and transmit any good or permanent gift by way of empire.”


As the country sped to war, and close to 90 percent of U.S citizens were against it, the Catholic bishops were deeply divided, and the American public, as a whole, didn’t know if the Church would speak with one voice, until July 1941, when Bishop Joseph Hurley of St. Augustine, the spokesman for the National Catholic Welfare Conference (successor of the National Catholic War Council, and predecessor of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) announced that the Catholic bishops would support Roosevelt’s war.


His main argument was recycled 60 years later when the Bush Administration settled on a preemptive war with Iraq. “As for the people,” Hurley said, “they have neither the experience nor access to the facts to decide whether we should go to war.”


Time magazine hailed Hurley, especially for attacking Fr. Coughlin. Hurley slammed that “small and noisy group of Catholics....We have suffered long from their tantrums. We have blushed for shame when they acted up before company as tantrum children will do in any family. Years ago they established the crank school of economics; latterly they have founded the tirade school of journalism; they are now engaged in the ostrich school of strategy.”


Archbishop Beckman of Dubuque, a major Coughlin supporter, responded in a nationally-broadcast radio address on NBC: “...From the beginning I have maintained that this war, however falsely represented, is an economic war based on greed, a vast struggle for power and possessions between two diametrically opposed systems of finance.


“The problem over which the warring nations have come to death-grips is simply this: whose economy shall be dominant in Europe, our or yours? In short, ‘who is to exploit who?’


“The entrenched internationalists had their day; they financed the world into eternal debt and milked whole peoples, grinding them down into the dust of ignorance, poverty, and abject despair.....


“Neither side is interested in God so much as gold or its equivalent. And there is no crusade for Christianity or democracy afoot anywhere in the world today either, all high-sounding slogans to the contrary notwithstanding...The spirit of whole peoples shattered by interminable warfare will prove fertile soil for the cockle of a new type of Communism. This new ‘godlessness’ I will call it, because it is like to be a composite of that paganism prevailing in high places everywhere today, is something I tremble to contemplate...”


George G

“Good news for Kerry is that he will have more opportunities to dine at fancy restaurants with Assad!”

A cheap shot – doesn’t contribute much to an intelligent, civil discussion of this terrifying and complicated issue.


It was a joke but there is indeed an edge to it yes; but a well deserved edge. I agree that this is a serious and complicated matter which is all the more reason to ensure that we have a serious and clear strategy that is articulated. Otherwise, how can anybody be reasonably expected to sign on and agree. This whole situation has been poorly managed and handled by the US leadership. There is just simply no doubt about that.

For the record, i am not a pascifist and with all due respect to the Holy Father, slogans like war no more sound good but the reality is that force is often necessary to protect and preserve the peace.And we live in a global village and the US wields the biggest stick in the village. So be smart about it and listen to the wisdom others (and it sounds like they are)

At issue is what is the aim and objective of the force. I still have no clue of what the now defunct action was intended to accomplish. Supposedly, the officlal stance of Washington is that they are not taking sides in the civil war. And yet by not only degrading his capacity but also funding, training, and supplying the opposition with arms, they are protracting the civil war.

I also don't think it is at all clear that Assad ordered the attack. It sounds to me like somebody in his army released it without authority (based on intercepted messages from Germany which had a panicked defence minister calling the officer in Damascus). Plus there are reorts of the rebels using it in the past.

The best solution is to contain and destroy the stockpile, call for an immediate ceasefire and begin to set the pre-conditions for orderly and fair democratic reforms (which BTW Assad had previously been actually doing hence the positive words from Kerry, Pelosi, et al.). But stop funding these opposition groups who have links to worldwide jihadi and al Qaeda ideolgies which is in nobody's interest to support.

And that brings me to the joke. Two years ago Assad is being wined and dined and hailed as a generous and progressive leader. Now he is public enemy number 1. How did that happen?

George D says: “Two years ago Assad is being wined and dined and hailed as a generous and progressive leader. Now he is public enemy number 1. How did that happen?”


It happened when Assad’s forces began murdering peaceful protestors in the streets of Syrian cities.  Its true that the U.S. hoped when Assad assumed power that he would be more moderate than his father and tried to nudge him in that direction, and maybe I’ve forgotten some things, but I don’t think we ever went overboard for him or hailed him as a generous and progressive leader, as you put it.  And even before the current repression began, I think we had become disillusioned by the disparity between his hopeful words and his lack of any concrete action.


The same can’t be said for elements of our celebrity culture.  Just before the crackdown began, Vogue magazine had the misfortune to run a puff piece on Assad and his wife, glamourizing her – I believe the article called her the rose of the desert – and portraying him in a favorable light, including anecdotes of a visit from Brad and Angelina that made gentle fun of any claim that the people didn’t love him.


Vogue quickly pulled the article from its web site, but I assume the print edition still exists in all its infamy.

Paul Likoudis:  You seem to be saying that Father Coughlin was right and that we should have stayed out of WWII.  Am I reading you correctly?

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