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Split on Syria

Now up on our homepage are two new pieces about Syria: a Commonweal editorial and a dissent to the editorial by Commonweal's editor, Paul Baumann. As Paul notes in his dissent, there is consensus among the editors about several important things but not about the central question: Is U.S. military action against the Assad regime a good idea? "The Editors"—or a majority of them—think it isn't:

[E]ven if a U.S. strike does succeed in getting Assad to stop using chemical weapons, he will likely continue killing indiscriminately with conventional weapons. And what will we do then—allow him to go ahead as long as he keeps the nerve gas locked up? What kind of message would that send? And what will happen to Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile if our military action leads to victory for the rebels, as it may? After all, we can’t hurt Assad without helping his enemies, and some of his enemies are ours too.

In short, good intentions are necessary but not sufficient. We must also consider, insofar as we can, the likelihood of the various possible outcomes. And insofar as we can’t do this, for lack of enough information, we ought to exercise extreme caution. To borrow the language of a failed interventionist, when the known unknowns greatly outnumber the knowns, the United States should hold its fire—especially when there’s no immediate threat to our national security.

Paul acknowledges the many risks of military action, but concludes that they are outweighed by the risks of inaction:

Will there be unintended casualties? Unavoidably, just as there were in Bosnia and Kosovo. Those limited attacks, however, did bring an end to the larger slaughter, saving tens of thousands of lives. Will Assad use chemical weapons again even if attacked? He well might. On the other hand, if past behavior is any guide, he will certainly use them again if no action is taken against him. Why don’t we stop Assad’s use of conventional weapons to kill indiscriminately? Because there is simply not the political will to intervene in Syria on a large scale. More important, neither is there a plausible military solution to the current conflict. That does not mean, however, that failing to stop one kind of mass killing obliges us to turn away from every mass killing. Assad obviously thinks chemical weapons give him a tactical advantage. If at all possible, he should be deprived of that advantage.



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A split on Syria? Speaking as a subsciber, I don't think it is a good policy to permit dissenting editorials. The magazine should have one editorial opinion on an issue. Splitting the vote is too much like opting not to take a clear stand. Unless it is done for other issues, it should not be done with this one. Majority vote or consensus but no more dissenting editorials.

George:  this is not a publication of the USCCB; it is one by and from lay Catholics.

Of course dissent should be allowed.

And, as far as I am concerned:  Baumann -1; Other Editors - 0.

Some of the words missing from the editorial --

God, Jesus, Church, Cross, pray, prayer, truth, love, faith, hope, peace, "just war," moral, morality, justice, right, wrong, legal, law, justified, and probably a whole lot of the most relevant considerations.

Do I really need to point out what is wrong with that, even if you did come to the right conclusion against the U.S. committing acts of war against Syria.


George, Commonweal’s mission is to provide a forum for civil, reasoned debate on the interaction of faith with contemporary politics and culture. To that end, I think that speaking with one voice is counter productive. To make debate possible, on any issue there should be at least two or three opinions, and preferably as many opinions as there are editors.


Nicholas Kristof at the NYT has some unusual things to say about Syria.  He was against Iraq and Afghanistan, but he's not necessarily against air strikes in Syria.  He maintains that limited action sometimes works, as opposed to most wars.  (See Kosovo, Mali, Bosnia, etc.)

Speaking of editorials, Vladimir Putin had  compelling op-ed in the New York Times:


From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

A wise and prudent leader injecting some much needed rationality into the discussion.

No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect....

We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.

The parallels with Kosova really do not work. Kosova was substantially independent  when the Serbian government wanted to "annex" it to its domain. Second, that action was Nato supported. These are huge differences. 

Further, it is perhaps the fault of the development of the Just War theory that Christians have become so willing to go to war. The history of Christian leaders goint o war is not pretty. The celebration of Charlemagne is really repugnant. We should keep in mind that the architect of the Just War Theory, Augustine of Hippo,  had no problem using force against Christians to make them Catholic. Charlemagne certainly followed that notion in offering Baptism or death. 

Editors - if you have to rely upon and quote from Rumsfeld, that should give you pause about your editorial conclusions?  

Putin and the NYTimes - actually, well written except for one part that he uses to buttress his argument - he tries to claim that the regime did not use chemical weapons.  Please........if your arguments to support your thesis are based upon *imagined* events, your thesis is weakened.

In response to Paul's dissent:

I am glad you wrote this. I dont happen to agree, but I think it was a very strong explanation of your position and I'm glad that you laid it out. My biggest concern is that this kind of intervention is happening without a clear sense that we have exhausted all other options. I wish you had addressed that concern as it is a vital element of just war traidition that all other options have been exhausted. The core of your argument I think is when you say: "If there are no consequences for his actions, Assad will be emboldened to use chemical weapons yet again and other rogue regimes will follow suit, eventually threatening basic U.S. security interests. It is hard to see how the UN’s inability to enforce one of the few restraints on war-making that has been observed more in fact than in the breach will strengthen international law or global stability. UN dysfunction cannot be an excuse for inaction."

I would respond by saying you are confusing "no military strike by US unilaterally" with "no consequences for his actions"--there are a range of consequences that have and could yet come for his actions, including UN approved military strikes. It seems like you are creating a strawman with your argument that one either supports US unilateral strikes or "no consequences." Also, you seem to say that the UN has already shown an " inability to enforce" and yet their investigation hasn't even been completed! You claim "UN dysfunction", but ignore that one key factor in that dysfunction is the refusal of the United States in this instance to even give the UN a chance to respond. From the very outset Kerry/Obama have treated the UN with contempt in their statements.

Is there a precedent for a split editorial decision at Commonweal, with a dissenting opinion? This isn't the Supreme Court, you know. 

Normally, I would have thought that the task is to write an editorial to which all could sign on in good conscience. This might have displayed two sides to the question, and left it with the note that the editors were unable to reach agreement.

That would not have been a bad outcome. 

What concerns me is the spectre of setting the editor in chief in public opposition to the rest of the editorial board. That opens a can of worms. "A house divided against itself" and all that. Suppose someone wants to influence the editorial policy of the magazine? The first thing you'd do is split up the editors, get one to refuse to agree, and to put out a dissenting opinion. Then the editors are just a bunch of individuals, and Commonweal does not speak with one voice.

If they can't agree, why not say so. In the editorial.

Any one of the editors is free to write for the magazine under his or her own name. I don't see how you can have an "editorial" from one editor, who disagrees with the rest.

Just to forestall the obvious argument that this is suppressing dissent: this isn't about suppressing disagreement, its about what an editorial is and does. 

I doubt that any editorial group always agrees. I am sure many editorials are printed where all the editors  do not agree. Jesus answered the disciples that objected to another group differing even tho they professed to represent Jesus. "He who is not against you is for you." So agreeing to disagree might be more honest and honorable. Dissent that is thought out and prayed over should be respected. Even if we vociferously disagree.

Let's keep our eye on the ball:  This is not about editorial disagreements at Commonweal.  Nor is this about satisfying cable news' insatiable need for dichotomous disagreements and puerile horse race politics.   

The world is very complicated.  Any action in this byzantine Syrian mess will be replete with unintended consequences.  

President Obama is in the best American tradition of "speak softly, but carry a big stick."

Our job is to communicate our views, our hopes and fears, to our elected leaders so that they understand the political costs of whatever they decide.  The debate in Congress should accurately reflect the debate among the voters.

I think all editorials should be signed.  

Something coy about withholding the identity of the writer of an opinion piece.  


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