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. 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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