Ronald E. Osborn is an adjunct professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy (Cascade Books), and Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic).
In the early weeks of September 2013, when it appeared likely that the United States would launch missile strikes on Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons against civilians, Commonweal published two opinion pieces responding to the Obama administration’s case for going to war. George Hunsinger rejected U.S. bombing on the grounds that it would fail to satisfy classical “just war” criteria; Commonweal editor Paul Baumann, in a dissent from the magazine’s editorial position, supported strikes by appealing to the same principles. We are now faced with a discomforting reality that should cause us to critically examine not the validity of the arguments presented by both writers so much as the stage on which those arguments played out: the just-war tradition itself as it has come to be understood by many Christians in debates about U.S. foreign policy.
Ultimately, it was not the just-war debate, nor any refined moral calculus in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas or Hugo Grotius, that determined the actual course of U.S. policy. It was, rather, self-interested maneuverings on all sides and particularly by Russia that simultaneously extricated Obama from the political corner he had boxed himself into, elevated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s status as a diplomatic power broker, and rescued Bashar al-Assad from a significant military blow, even as his regime continues to commit war crimes and atrocities. In this light both Hunsinger’s and Baumann’s arguments from the just-war tradition have a somewhat surreal quality. Taken together, their articles leave us with the impression that policy-makers are actually listening to what Christian moral theorists have to say—and that standard just-war language is the only language left to the church in the face of violence.
But this is not the case. One option that went unconsidered in Commonweal (although Hunsinger’s article came closest to it) is a stance sometimes referred to as “just-war pacifism.” Just-war pacifists may or may not be “absolute pacifists”; their position does not require that they deny the legitimacy of force in extreme scenarios. Nor do they hold any great optimism regarding our ability to end all wars or sway political outcomes through marches and petitions. Rather, the just-war pacifist begins with a thoroughly realist assumption—that foreign policy is seldom if ever guided by rigorous just-war precepts. It is difficult to imagine what a U.S. foreign policy and military posture guided by just-war principles would look like, so stringent is the tradition. Widespread inability among “Christian realists” to discern the tension, if not outright contradiction, between “realism” and just-war criteria is itself a deadly brand of idealism.
A realistic assessment of U.S. foreign policy since World War II would speak, for example, not of the Niebuhrian “irony” involved in the exercise of U.S. power, but rather of our persistent use of violence in pursuit of “the national interest”—what Martin Luther King Jr. soberly described during the Vietnam era as “the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.” Realism demands that we pay close attention to the sheer power interests, often cloaked in idealistic rhetoric, underlying the Pentagon’s estimated nine hundred military bases and installations in every corner of the globe, our staggering military budgets, and events such as Washington’s installation of dictators in countries like Greece, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Iran in the 1950s; its overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Chile and Brazil in the 1960s; its relentless “pacification” campaign in Indochina and “secret” carpet-bombing of Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and ’70s; its “green light” for Indonesia’s genocidal invasion and occupation of Catholic-majority East Timor in the ’70s; its sponsoring of right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador to prop up corrupt oligarchies (even as they murdered priests and nuns calling for justice for the poor) from the ’50s through the ’80s; its channeling of billions of dollars of military aid to Turkey and Colombia as they escalated atrocities against their own populations in the ’90s; and the invasions, renditions, torture, and assassinations of our new surveillance state in the “war on terror” since 2001.
To say that these facts are not aberrations but windows into the nature of U.S. power is not to say that the policy-makers responsible for them have always been motivated by self-consciously Machiavellian considerations. The just-war pacifist is less interested in the personal psychology of leaders than in the institutional constraints, the systemic forces, and the structural pressures under which they operate—pressures that often blind individuals to their own roles within vast complexes of unjustified privilege, violence, and war or threat of war. The president is as incapable of fundamentally altering the character of the empire as the well-meaning CEO of an oil company is capable of turning the corporation—through token philanthropy and gestures of social consciousness, welcome though these may be—into something other than a competitive, extractive, self-interested, and profit-maximizing system.
The just-war pacifist is also keenly aware that even on those rare occasions when the “national interest” happens to coincide with the global common good, humans are unable to contain, control, or foresee the results of the violence they unleash. Many of the wars the United States has waged in the name of “just cause” have ended in crimes against humanity, from the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo to the free-fire zones of Vietnam. Allegedly “limited” and “proportionate” uses of violence have often led to even greater violence, sometimes decades later, in the form of “blowback.” An unsentimental view of history should lead us to a deeper questioning of our moral passivity and complicity in violence—not to shrouding these brutalities of the nation-state in theological or philosophical euphemisms.
ACCORDING TO JAMES FREDERICKS (“American Innocence: Niebuhr and the Ironies of History,” January 24), Obama’s tactics in the “war on terror” reveal “the self-conscious, existential irony of a man who knows he must act in history.”
The existential irony of Obama’s policies may be lost on the families of the Yemeni civilians who, according to an October report by Human Rights Watch, were killed “indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war” by U.S. drones—just a few of the likely hundreds of innocent persons executed in distant lands, and under a veil of secrecy, since Obama took office. Realism requires that we name these facts for what they are: not “tragedies” but atrocities, ones that would immediately be recognized as such if the missiles were landing in American towns and cities. As Hans Morgenthau wrote in 1966, when scholars enter the realm of politics, they abdicate their role as seekers of truth and come to serve as apologists for power, but the “genuine intellectual tells the world what it doesn’t want to hear” and “speaks, in the biblical sense, truth to power”—a view that predictably earned Morgenthau vicious attacks from the Johnson administration. Power, realism tells us, always protects itself.
Finally, just-war pacifists in the Christian tradition remember that in a world of violence and war, the church’s primary calling remains that of modeling a radically different kind of action, and of community. Inevitably in the discussion of how to respond to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and its other crimes against humanity, the question arises: “What should we do if not strikes?” Such questions assume a very particular “we”—a “we” that possesses all the tools of violence and must decide when and how to use them. They invite us to imagine ourselves equipped with missiles and drones, and to work out our ethics from the position of the state’s monopoly on violence. Yet to ask “What should we drone operators do?” or “What should Obama do?”—or even “What should we Americans do?”—is not the same as asking “What should we members of the Body of Christ do?” The irony of “Christian realism” is the tragedy of misplaced pronouns.
The church, as Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, does not have a foreign policy or a politics; rather, the church is a politics, confronting the harsh realities of war as an alternative, even subversive presence in the midst of every society and every political order in which it finds itself. Christians must think and act accordingly, bearing creative witness to the New Testament story of Christ’s victory over the structures of violence—the “principalities and powers”—and we must do so with absolute realism about the nature of power and violence in the world in which we live. We must strive to create alternative social spaces that meet concrete human needs and transcend all national, ideological, and political differences. We must devote our energies to providing care for—and advocating on behalf of—the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, including refugees and other victims of wars without regard for what side they are on. And we must steadfastly refrain from participating in the violence of the nation-state—even for the sake of noble ideals. If we do on occasion speak in the language of “just war,” it can never be our native tongue.
The civil war in Syria has significantly worsened over the past three months, even as it has largely vanished from public discussion in the United States. While the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons under international supervision moves forward, his forces continue to launch indiscriminate attacks on civilians with impunity, using relatively primitive techniques such as “barrel bombs”—explosive-filled drums, rolled out of helicopters—that on December 15 killed an estimated eighty people (including twenty-eight children) in Aleppo. According to rights organizations, opposition groups, many of them radical Islamists, are also committing escalating atrocities, including kidnappings, executions, bombings, and shootings, that rise to the level of crimes against humanity.
The UN foresees that more than three-quarters of the Syrian population will need humanitarian assistance in 2014 and has issued a $6.5-billion aid appeal, the largest in the organization’s history. Yet with over 2 million Syrian war refugees to date—a number that could double this year—the Washington Post reports that as of last September, the Obama administration had permitted only ninety of them to settle in the United States. It is evidently far easier for our elected officials to consider bombing a country for the greater good of humanity than to welcome foreigners whose homes have been bombed. Under these circumstances, there is much that the church and individual believers can do, and must do, to work for peace.
Published in the March 21, 2014 issue: