Syria: Two Arguments Why to Say No

Brad Miner and I discovered recently that we were each sketching a column about Syria in light of the pope’s call for a day of prayer and fasting Saturday, as well as the national and international debate currently under way about the president’s planned military action. We agree about the just war principles and the conclusion, but differ widely in our perspectives and prudential judgments along the way – not all that surprising since in matters of war and peace many contingencies, which cannot be reduced to mere formulas, are always in play. We offer them together here to encourage further thought on an urgent moral question. – Robert Royal

Sometimes a Little Is Good
Robert Royal

I want to make an argument about potential military action against Syria with full awareness that it will please no one – not even me – entirely. I would have been in favor of a limited, well-targeted strike against the Syrian armed forces – if it had occurred immediately following verification of their use of chemical weapons. The world would have understood and forgotten about it. But the Syrian regime would have had one more thing to worry about, including what would happen if they tried again. As would other potential malefactors. A small but real gain for innocent Syrians and the world.

Polls of the American people basically follow my own shifting view. A majority favored action early after the chemical attacks. Now the majority lies the other way. As well it should.

The situation has morphed into ridiculous nincompoopery. Has any government ever told an enemy so much of what it intends to do and not do? And who are we going to ask next for their opinions before acting? Assad’s generals? Putin? Any action we might take now will fail in the limited difference it might have made. The president’s explanations and the debates in Congress are growing more convoluted than if we were contemplating a full-scale declaration of war. In an odd way, all this talk might turn it into the moral equivalent of one.

My basic judgment – only a prudential judgment – is that it is bad, indeed very bad, for the world to give any nation a pass on the use of weapons of mass destruction. People on all sides of the argument have said that there’s no difference between death from conventional weapons or from WMD’s. That’s true. In a very limited sense, dead is dead.

In policy terms, it’s false. Syria killed almost 1500 people, including almost 500 children, in a single chemical attack. This means death on a different order of magnitude, which is why we call them WMDs and why the nations of the world have outlawed them in theory, while showing little moral responsibility in practice.

There’s a price for moral grandstanding without follow through. In Syria, it might quickly lead to double the 100,000 or so people already killed.

Now, it’s also true that many worrisome things might follow an attack on Syria. But there are many worrisome consequences for not acting. I take Russia’s warning yesterday that nuclear material might leak, if we’re not careful, as a transparent ploy You’re worried about chemicals? This could go nuclear!

My preference would have been a quick strike on military capabilities, airfields, known residences of high-up members of the regime – and one that made clear, something President Obama has denied, that future WMD use will invite repeat attacks.

It’s not necessarily true that such a strike would “do nothing.” Ronald Reagan sent fighter-bombers in 1983 to attack Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, who was sponsoring terrorism against Americans in Europe. European friends at the time were terrified that we’d made things worse. In fact, those attacks came to an abrupt halt.  A near miss can make the most ruthless ruler think again.

It would have been a measured and appropriate deterrent, in my view, if we had attacked swiftly. Assad and his generals know we’re not going to invade. And so do we. But we can draw some lines. And sometimes should.

The army

The president did so haphazardly and half-heartedly – so it’s no surprise Assad called his bluff. Indeed, it’s been declassified in the past few days that Syrian gas attacks over recent months have already numbered somewhere in “the teens.” Syria probably already thought Obama was only talking when he gave the infamous “red line” speech.

Which is his M.O. After talking tough last Saturday, Obama went golfing that very afternoon for seven hours. That, I’m afraid, also sent “a message.”

Both the pope and Syrian Christian leaders have opposed a military response. And Francis has asked Catholics to observe a day of prayer and fasting for peace on Saturday. I’ll be one of them because, as the old joke goes, divine intervention is the realistic option in a place like Syria.

The pope has also asserted that, “War begets war, violence begets violence.” But with all due respect, this is not exactly right.

Violence by definition is always improper and may often lead to further violence.

War – just war under the traditional criteria – may be proper precisely because it’s not violence, but a just use of force. War does not inevitably beget war; sometimes it’s the only way to stop war.

We’d all prefer that every war was like World War II – which settled the violence spread by Germany, Italy, and Japan – and turned them into normal nations. The outcomes in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have made it appear, by contrast, that interventions in very difficult parts of the world are pointless. That’s almost always so. Almost.

Sometimes the best we can do is not to seek regime change or a grand “victory” of some sort, but “the least bad alternative.” In Syria, until we have an idea of who we want to replace Assad, we’re better off taking our time in helping with his departure. As a general proposition, we do best to stay out of the Middle East, while at the same time making clear that some things we will not tolerate, and will respond to at times and in ways of our own choosing.

I am not talking about overbroad ideals like the “responsibility to protect,” which the Vatican long supported and was passed by the U.N. in 2007. There’s no likelihood that the nations of the world together, the United States singly, or some as yet to be created U.N. force will treat R2P, a favorite of our U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, as an ironclad requirement of international law. Even use of WMDs may sometimes happen in circumstances that don’t permit outside action.

But measured action to deter mass slaughter in specific circumstances? The world – usually the United States – must be prepared to do that. Not as the world’s policeman, but a prudent power when nothing else will stop barbarism.   

The moment for that has been thrown away. Instead of a quick and measured warning, anything we do now is going to make things more complex and dangerous – even not attacking. In the short run, the poor Syrian people will pay the price for this failure. In the long run, I fear we’re all destined now for worse troubles.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Syrian people

The Question of Proportionality
Brad Miner

In an interview in the wake of 9-11, Joseph Ratzinger was asked about just-war theory. His reply, in part:

I think that the Christian tradition on this point has provided answers that must be updated on the basis of new methods of destruction and of new dangers. For example, there may be no way for a population to defend itself from an atomic bomb. So, these must be updated.

Although I dread to misinterpret the great man, this has struck me ever since as a way of thinking about preemption. God knows, it’s no sort of rubber stamp for every imaginable intervention this or that leader might envision, and I don’t believe it comes close to justifying the attack President Obama is contemplating against Syria: a punishment for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against “rebels.”

President Truman’s 1945 decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan will always be debated. On the evidence I’ve seen, I believe Mr. Truman was convinced the bombs would obviate a D-Day-like invasion that might have cost a million American lives; God alone knows how many Japanese soldiers and civilians would have perished. (Approximately 250,000 died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Of course, we cannot know what would have happened in an invasion, because we didn’t invade.

But that was then, and nobody is contemplating nuking Damascus. But surely we can agree – putting aside other options available to President Truman (and the consequences that might have followed) – that he made a prudential decision. I don’t think it was cunning, which is false prudence.

In fact, Truman’s decision corresponded to all or part of the basic criteria of just war theory, save one: the question of proportionality. As in the fire bombing of Dresden, Germany, it’s hard to see how the choice of targets (even though significant militarily) was justified given their large civilian populations.

I may grudgingly support President Truman (easy concerning events before I was born and knowing the result: friendship with Japan and Germany), because peace was the result of his decisions.

So how to judge Obama and Syria? The cause, as stated by the Administration, is only vaguely just, i.e. eliminating or deterring the further use of chemical weapons. Although I think the office of the American presidency is a “competent” authority (and the United Nations in all its irrelevancy is not), I don’t think acting alone in the case of Syria makes sense, especially – addressing a key element of just war theory – America’s national security is not at stake. In fact, as one of my correspondents likes to say, Syria is a sideshow. (Things may look very different someday if Iran aims nukes at Israel.)

The rebels

Wherever Assad’s chemical weapons are stored and from whomever they (and any other WMD the regime may possess) have come into Syria, every single site those weapons now occupy is likely surrounded by civilian shields, making it unlikely an American attack could be proportional. Or effective, although there are lots of reasons why that is so.

More and more, I find myself thinking that in war there must rarely, if ever, be half measures – and never, ever futile gestures. Mr. Obama’s plans – as articulated (if that’s the right word for such anxiety-ridden mumbo jumbo) by him, the veep, and Secretaries Kerry and Hagel – seem designed to do nothing to encourage peacemaking in the ongoing Syrian civil war and may, in fact, succeed in inflaming the conflict, the outcome of which could go either way.

And by the way – and Sen. McCain’s roseate view notwithstanding – who are those Syrian rebels opposing the Assad government? One is concerned that we have met the enemy and they are them. As formerly in Cairo. We’re not very good at picking the right horse. As currently in Kabul. At editorial meetings at National Review, James Burnham (he died a couple of years before I worked there) would listen to this sort of lose-lose scenario being debated heatedly around the table, and when a lull came would say: “Ladies and gentlemen, if there’s no solution, there’s no problem.”

That may scan as cynical, but to my mind it’s the soul of common sense.

Every Catholic should be spending some time every day – not just at Mass on Sunday – praying for peace. The pope has asked us to. And we ought to pray for President Obama; that he will make a prudential, not a political decision.

In his history of WWII, The Great Crusade, H.P. Willmot makes the point that the West’s failure to defend Manchuria – by enforcing treaties with China – against the Japanese invasion (1931) was an incitement to global war. In short: Hitler saw that Manchuria was left to twist in the wind, and was emboldened to move on the Sudetenland. In all, 60,000,000 (conservatively) would die in the next fifteen years of slaughter. There was talk in the lead up to the Gulf War (1991) that it was all about oil. I argued at the time – at a National Review gathering (under questioning by WFB) – that, as in the Thirties, world peace was at stake, and we needed to consider that what may seem but a single ember floating on a faraway breeze may drop upon distant tinder and ignite a spreading conflagration. This may be what we face in Syria, although I doubt it.

And the only reason to preemptively, prudently bomb Syria would be to prevent another world war, and I don’t believe that’s what’s at stake. Neither does anybody else.

Sad to say, however, the World’s Only Remaining Superpower has made a spectacle of dithering weakness. And in the long run, that may cost us dearly.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.