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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. 


Commenting Guidelines


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?