War in Syria: When There Is No Good Answer, Answer Without Bombs

Breaking News: Politicians are occasionally dishonest and always opportunists.

Yes, President Obama made all kinds of speeches, as a Senator and candidate for President, decrying the imperialist cowboy George W. Bush. Some of these old speeches were even pretty inspirational if you heard them before President Obama said so many things you can’t unhear. We can’t solve global threats alone, the United States must develop relationships if it wants lasting peace—that sort of thing. All quite right too. George W. Bush was pretty finicky about putting together a coalition for the Iraq War. You may recall that he was endlessly mocked for the phrase “Coalition of the Willing.” And Obama, former lecturer in constitutional law, informed us that the Constitution plainly requires Congress’s approval for military action. Good old GWB scrupulously sought and received said authorization to invade Iraq. He even went to the UN, held up their 19 Security Council Resolutions demanding weapons inspections, and said, “How about it?” In politics, don’t bother trying to please your critics.

But you know what Republicans were saying at the time? All kinds of pro-war, pro-executive power things. All kinds of crazy things confusing Sunni and Shia Muslims and al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It took us a few days to topple what passed for a fighting force in Iraq and only a few more to realize there weren’t stockpiles of H-bombs hanging around Saddam’s palace. Of course, Saddam had gassed the Kurds and, like, everyone from Senators Clinton and Kerry to the Mossad and MI-6 thought he had more serious WMDs. It didn’t matter. Republicans started pushing the silly line that Saddam was involved in 9/11 or was planning something like it.

The unsettling thing about the developing situation in Syria is not the brinkmanship, nor is it the cynical flippity-floppity on executive war powers. (To be fair on the latter, there are some consistent folks on the left and the right.) No, the unsettling thing is the lack of even an attempt to connect the use of force to an American interest. The President is right to point out that Assad is flouting international norms regarding the use of chemical weapons—but so what? Why does this mean we bomb the country? Obama has disavowed regime change as an objective or even anticipated result of any coming strike.

Last year, a reporter asked the President to define our “red line” for Syria. He dissembled about how moving or using chemical weapons would “change the calculus.” Astute readers may notice that a red line is a very specific kind of calculus changing—namely, “Let’s go.” I’m glad he didn’t mean what it sounded like, though. That line was crossed a while ago, and we are waiting to hear whether the President will defer to Congress or order some kind of strike on his own. Presumably there’s a lot of calculus going on at the White House. In particular, the President’s team is apparently trying to formulate a response that is “just muscular enough” not to make his earlier red-line comments look toothless.

Go ahead and read this USA Today story and tell me if you can find our objective here. The closest we come is Jay Carney telling us that it is not in our national interest to let the use of chemical weapons go unpunished. So is the objective to disable their chemical weapons capabilities or to just kind of… thwack them in general? So we’re now explicitly assuming the role of world’s vice principal. (There are defenders of this flavor of bomb-lobbing, like William Saletan at Slate.) This isn’t just old rightwinger Whitesell hammering on the President. No less a liberal institution than The New Yorker picked up on it, satirically proclaiming: “Obama Promises Syria Strike Will Have No Objective.” Perhaps this is why President Obama decided to wait for Congress to saunter back to Washington after Labor Day. Maybe he thinks John McCain will write some kind of objective into the authorization law. Best outcome: Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders team up for a filibuster telethon during which they read the the Iliad in verse.

Make no mistake: Syria is a nightmare and a conflagration there threatens not only to blow up the tinderbox that is the Middle East, but to draw in Russia and China and their client states. The rebels are dominated by Islamists, but include people who just want to be free to rule themselves. And Assad’s forces include plenty of fine Syrians who simply see order under Assad as preferable to gambling on whatever cleric or strongman happens to be in vogue when Assad runs away to Paris or Tehran, or wherever these types go nowadays. (If you think I’m pessimistic, take a look at the always gloomy yet intractably delightful Mark Steyn.)

The President needs our prayers, not our jeering and armchair quarterbacking. There’s no simple solution, and you should be pretty thankful you aren’t the one having to decide how to respond. I personally believe the President has the constitutional authority to order military action unless Congress acts in very specific ways to stop him (namely, by prohibiting the appropriations of funds for operations). And, like President Bush, I think that when the United States publicly tells a nation that there will be consequences in the form of explosions, he better mean it. Plus: You know who knows better than us who used what weapons when? CIA, DIA, ONI, probably the OMB, and the executive chef. But suddenly everyone on Facebook is an intel analyst with the highest levels of clearance. So on those counts, I’m with the President.

But here we are in 2013 with a Nobel Peace Prize winner as our President, and we’re contemplating bombing a foreign nation with no objective beyond acting as tough as we talk. This is the apotheosis of form over substance, a kind of postmodern dusk in which the specific content of the conflict is difficult to discern even while the immediate causes are obvious. President Bush waged a full-scale public relations campaign in the media to sell the American people on the war in Iraq. Now we don’t even bother trying to explain why it’s our business.

Maybe this is the part of a CaPC post where you look for a practical, third-way takeaway for Christians. I’m sorry, but there isn’t one here. As between a brutal dictator and his rebel enemies who include al-Qaeda and other Islamist types, there is no good outcome (hey, read the story at that link, it’s really helpful). Order will once again prevail in Syria when one or another of these factions finally sheds enough blood to dominate the other. You can be assured that Syria will be neither happy nor free.

I am usually wary of attempts to take biblical truths directed to individuals and apply them to nation-states. In this case, though, Romans 12:18 seems particularly appropriate: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Given that there is no discernible happy ending to this, perhaps the best course of action for any nation—including the United States—is not to pointlessly involve itself.

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.


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