Limited & Proportionate

An Editorial Dissent

Contrary to the speculation in some quarters, there exists a spectrum of views on political as well as theological questions among Commonweal editors. In writing the magazine’s editorials, we strive for consensus, seeking to practice the habits of moral deliberation we urge on others. As the magazine’s very name connotes, one of our principal goals is to help forge a greater sense of the common good, both within the church and the larger culture. In presenting a variety of opinions on the pressing issues of the day in each issue, we hope to show that as Catholics and as Americans we can reason through our differences in order to act in concert.

On rare occasions the editors fail to reach consensus, and that is the case on the question of whether Congress should pass a resolution endorsing President Barack Obama’s call to strike military targets in Syria. Obama has shown great restraint when it comes to involving the United States in Syria’s brutal civil war. He has been right to do so. As the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan have shown, there are serious limits to what the United States can accomplish by inserting itself into the internal conflicts of other countries. But that doesn’t mean the United States or the world community can stand by and watch great crimes being committed. Where the United States has the ability to stop or deter such crimes, it should—provided military action is proportionate and has a reasonable prospect of achieving its stated goals. As the political philosopher Michael Walzer has written, “Active opposition to massacre and massive deportation is morally necessary; its risks must be accepted.”

As Obama stated in his address to the nation on September 10, his objective is to conduct a limited and carefully targeted attack to punish Bashar al-Assad and to degrade his military capabilities, especially his ability to use poison gas. The president argues that such an attack is morally necessary to uphold the international norm against the use of such weapons. 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.

My editorial colleagues and I agree that the Assad regime has almost certainly used chemical weapons, that military action would be justified if it were likely to be effective, and that Obama is right to seek congressional approval for such strikes. We especially welcome the president’s willingness to place this decision before Congress, thus restoring a crucial aspect of the Constitution’s balance of powers regarding the use of military force. We all furthermore urge the president to abide by Congress’s decision. Where we disagree is in how to measure the risks and benefits of military action.

The risks my colleagues have outlined are real; they certainly give me the greatest apprehension. Yet I do not believe those risks outweigh the need to enforce what has been the remarkably successful international prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction. Will more Syrians be saved than killed as a result of an attack? If the strikes diminish Assad’s war-making capability, the likely answer is yes. 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. 

As Obama noted in his September 10 speech, there is now a proposal from Russia for dismantling and transferring Syria’s chemical weapons to the control of the international community. Assad’s principal allies may now think he has badly miscalculated the world’s tolerance for crimes against humanity. If the Russian initiative bears fruit, there will be little doubt that the threat of U.S. military action moved all parties toward a recalibration of what is in their best interests. If the Russian initiative fails, Congress will again be asked to endorse a limited U.S. strike. It should do so. Despite the paranoia on both the left and the right, this president has shown no inclination to prolong or widen America’s wars. That record should count for more than it seems to among Democrats and Republicans alike. Congress must recognize that diplomacy is a mere charade unless international norms can be enforced. 

About the Author

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.



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TR believed in speaking softly but carrying a big stick.

BO appears to believe in speaking beautifully with erudition but not sure whether he wants to carry any stick at all.

If a POTUS is not able to persuade the country to walk the walk, then maybe (s)should not be talking the talk.  LBJ would never have found himself in the kind of situational corner into which BO has backed himself.

That was supposed to be "(s)he"

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. 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.


Of all the war horrors of the past 100 years, one small, tiny, minuscule modicum of human decency which has been preserved is the agreement not to use one particularly odious class of weapons.  Maybe chemical weapons are not the worst of the worst, but they are at least one of the very bad actors. 

If the world were to sit by and do absolutely nothing beyond hand wringing and verbal scolding, it would/will happen again in Syria and it would/will surely happen elsewhere.

The idea is to inflict a degree of punishment to dissuade future use of this class of weapons. I have no personal military expertise, but, in principle, were it possible to destroy a weapons stockpile and/or delivery system with absolutely no loss of life, then I can't imagine that this should not be carried out.  I further think that the threat of a military response had something to do with the current diplomatic initiative by the Russians.

Now, is it possible to inflict a degree of punishment sufficient to dissuade without the loss of any life?  Probably not; I don't know.  How much loss of life would be morally "acceptable," if any?  I don't have the wisdom to say.

All l can say is that doing nothing beyond ineffective "diplomacy," while seeing the use of chemical weapons relegitimatized, strikes me as being irresponsible.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

Throughout the history of the 20th Century (I lived through half of it) the pattern seems clear, bullies with national power - when threatened with disruption of their hegemony - or with situations where opportunism is likely to be rewarded, use unconscionable force against their fellow citizens or close neighbors.

And while one fatal blow is as final as another to the recipient, the collateral damage upon those still living varies considerably depending upon the wantoness and painfulness of the means by which death is inflicted. Our ability to be variously shocked by gratuitous harm is a distinguishing characteristic of humanity.

Chemical weapons are both belligerent and intimidating - they sow fear and uncertainty in ways that conventional weaponry can rarely sustain. That the vast majority of nations are signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention is indicative of a state of general agreement that did not exist just one century ago on the eve of the First World War.

But such agreement is meaningless without the will to preserve the majority commitment against those who would take advantage by ignoring the Convention. Weariness of the limited effectiveness of armed force in order to reproach the perrenial bullies is no moral claim on with-holding response to egregious slaughter intended to induce unrelievable fear.

This will be true with all the deaths from conventional artillery shells in Syria as it is with the gassing of civilians especially children. But the progress of peace and forebearance of violence is not ever going to be a straight line path illuminated simply by the light of pure indignation. Civil life is complex, its strengths and weaknesses reveal themselves at the margins of freedom of action.

That is why there must be lines; and once drawn they must be respected. Honoring the Threat is an ages old proverb of community self-defense. It is on that basis the punishment of the Assad regime is in order.

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