There is nothing worse than reading a wretched argument from someone who seems like the kind of person you would like to make a friend. Yet since he has written one of the few widely circulated Christian defenses of the Syrian air strike and since I asked for one, I shall have to respond.
Part I: Some Opening Remarks
Sohrab Ahmari is a recent convent to Christianity who seems like the kind of smart, thoughtful guy I would like. He is a lawyer who writes at Commentary after a stint at the Wall Street Journal and his life story (at least via Wikipedia) will make a great book of a man’s rise from oppression to the truth.
He has just written The Christian Case for Striking Syria . I am going to run the risk of losing every reader by looking at the case as completely as possible. Mr. Ahmari’s arguments will be quoted in block quotes and I will respond. Before doing this, let me make three general observations. Skip these disclaimers if you wish to get to the problems with the argument Mr. Ahmari makes.
Three General Observations and a Disclaimer
First, just war theory is a complicated field of study. Most Christians are not pacifists, but we default to peaceful solutions. If there is any better peaceful resolution, a Christian opts for that solution. No Christian should decide he wishes to attack someone (or that it is in his best interest) and then look for the arguments to make the situation fit.
To their great credit, both President George HW Bush and President George W Bush spent extensive time and effort making the just war case before striking Iraq.
Second, just war theory sometimes relies on prudence. We have to weigh what is probable in terms of future outcomes. Because the harm of warfare is certain, the good we will do must be very likely indeed. In this light, the relative failure of the US intelligence in the case for the second Gulf War is a consideration. Another important consideration will be the continued destabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan based on military interventions using similar arguments to those used today. Relative failure of past seemingly prudential judgments shifts the burden of proof, especially from the same people.
Our experience in the Middle East in the last twenty years should give us great caution in taking actions that try to “box in” or “destabilize” even very bad regimes. Can someone point to a success?
Third, nothing I say should be taken as support for the Assad or Putin regimes. Christians should be delighted to see better governments, a bar that is very low, in both Russia and Syria. I do think Mr. Ahmari’s dismissal of universal Middle Eastern Christian condemnation of the attacks as being a result of their being “clients” of Assad (in his Twitter commments) is very unfortunate. Many members of those churches are abroad, as I am, and are not ethnic Syrians and we share our Patriarch’s opinion.
Here is my disclaimer: I will give my political position to demonstrate any bias but nothing I write will be based on that political position if I can help it. I am writing (best I can) as a mere Christian.
My Political Bias (Skip if You Wish)
I am a Republican from a family that has been Republican since the Civil War when we joined the many mountaineers who broke with Virginia to form West Virginia and fight for Mr. Lincoln. That was drummed into my very being as a boy.
As a young man, we moved to Upstate New York, where I was a Jack Kemp Republican who grew up in the Reagan era. I remain a Burkean conservative and run a college alternative that proudly teaches the great texts, including those of the classical liberal tradition. Each year I spend hours pouring over John Locke and admiring his gifts to the Republic. While I did not vote for Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton in 2016, none of my response will be predicated on that decision.
Part II: And Now the Christian Case Against the Christian Case for the Syrian Attacks
An Unfortunate Bulverism
Following some introductory material, Mr. Ahmari writes:
Christian opposition to intervention in Syria is typically framed in prudential terms: How will we ensure that retaliation won’t trigger a catastrophic confrontation with Russia? Who will take his place if Assad falls, and what will become of Syria’s indigenous Christians and other minorities? What strategic purpose is served by attacking the Assad regime? I suspect that behind these prudential questions lies a more fundamental ambivalence about America and the West. Many Christian thinkers, both lay and clerical, believe almost as an article of faith that U.S. military might can do no right. They also increasingly question the legitimacy of American power.
Needless to say, this is an unfortunate beginning, falling into the particularly noxious fallacy where the writer mystically divines what his critics believe and uses that insight as the key to his argument. CS Lewis called this Bulverism.
Ahmari may be a very fine lawyer, but he is not a psychologist or so far as I can tell a mystic able to see the shadows that live in the hearts of his critics. Yet even if he were gifted with such powers, casting about for the motivations of his critics as the key to attacking their moral compunction is to combine a logical fallacy with offensiveness. I do not have a fundamental ambivalence about America or the West, unless by “fundamental ambivalence” one means not confusing my beloved country and the West with the Kingdom of God. There are left-wing Christians who may think the American military can do no right, but that is not the particular problem of my Texas tribe of Christians, even amongst the “thinkers.”
Imagine if this particular Bulverism were reversed. Surely, it would be equally fallacious and offensive of me to say that Ahmari is a “lay Christian thinker who believes almost as an article of faith that US military can do no wrong. He also increasingly fails to question the legitimacy of American power.”
If I then used that assumption (and the fact that he is a paid “client” of the conservative American media), as facts against his claims, I would be making a bad argument and doing harm to a brother in Christ. I assume he means what he says, despite his financial situation, and will not (or should not!) try to discern his motives.
Let’s summarize what a Christian must say about a secular state:
No Christian can think any secular state perfect. Every Christian must question any decision to use military power by anyone. Any extreme (the US is the Great Satan or the US is the Israel of God) is heresy.
The beliefs of his critics do not in fact matter to the argument anyway, but I am not guilty (nor is any conservative I know guilty) of the “bad-think” the Bulverism asserts in any case.
Even Assuming the Bulverism, We (!) Find Some Problems in the Argument
Having started with a fallacy, the article then proceeds to make some bad arguments. Apparently critics of attacks on Syria are in a moral muddle based on our attitudes toward the United States. Let’s leave that aside and hear how Ahmari makes his case:
This is a faulty and parlous attitude, and it can muddle our judgment about a principle that Christian morality takes very seriously indeed: namely, international order.
As George Weigel wrote in an influential First Things essay, Christian moral theology recognizes that “there are circumstances in which the first and most urgent obligation in the face of evil is to stop it,” and, therefore, that “there are times when waging war is morally necessary to defend the innocent and to promote the minimum conditions of international order.” That was in January 2003, as the U.S. was about to launch an invasion of Iraq.
Christians certainly take international order seriously. We are subjects of the Kingdom before we are citizens of the Republic and are in solidarity with Christians in any nation in the world. This is why we do not assume that the US military can only do right or only do wrong. We have a Kingdom (hence transnational) perspective. The reason “just war” theory is called “just war” theory is that the Christian mainstream has thought there are circumstances where war is just.
Having stated what we have in common (aside from the minority of Christian thinkers who are pacifists), Ahmari draws some bad conclusions:
Today Weigel’s essay is held up in some quarters as Exhibit A in the case against Catholic neoconservatism. Yet the principles Weigel laid out are as sound today as they were then, and the troubling outcome of the Iraq project doesn’t automatically vindicate the reflexive Christian opposition to today’s escalation in Syria. Christian supporters and critics of Trump’s move must apply public moral reasoning informed by the faith’s rich tradition of thinking about war and peace. The critics, I believe, have the weaker case—for two reasons.
Here is a sound use of reason: a misapplication of a sound principle does not make the principle unsound. It might, however, make you question how you applied the principal if similar circumstances occur.
Anybody who thinks Weigel’s misapplication (assuming Iraq was wrong) of just war theory invalidates just war reasoning is foolish. In fact, that Christians of his standing were carefully thinking about the Iraq War and were given time to do so by the careful preparation of the Bush administration is one good thing the Bush administration did! That we had deep thinkers of Weigel’s caliber making the case was also important and missing from the Syrian discussion.
Let me continue to agree with Ahmari: we should not have a “reflexive” opposition to any possible moral action. As Christians we should reflexively prefer peace to war, but then look at the situation carefully. What should give Mr. Ahmari pause is that unlike the Bush administration, the case for Syrian intervention has been much less carefully made. The public has been made privy to much less evidence. We have less data to build a case for intervention.
Iraq and Afghanistan did not turn out as well as was promised. A rational man would be dubious about similar promises from the same people. Nobody needs a deep motive for that caution!
First, Christians cannot remain ambivalent in the face of grave evil. This is true of the individual soul, who is called to wage spiritual combat against the evil within his heart (cf. Mt. 15:19), but it is also true of powers and nations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is instructive on this point: “Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes” (2313; emphasis added). And more: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man” (2314).
We now come to another bad argument. Here is the methodology:
State a principle about which nobody disagrees and then draw a conclusion from it that does not follow.
I know of no person that thinks we should be ambivalent in the face of chemical attacks. I know of no Christian who thinks that we should ignore acts of war that do wholesale damage.
However, we might notice that this part of the catechism is usually applied to bombing cities as was done by both sides in World War II. Recall: the catechism is not written to give reasons so that (at last!) we can fight, but to build barriers against fighting.
We want peace, not war.
It follows that Christians must support efforts to defang regimes that commit such crimes.
For example, suppose a nation killed unborn children and even paid for such killings through a national health system. Could we ally (as Christians) with such a nation? Must we support a (hypothetical) Catholic regime that launched targeted smart missiles at government clinics? I know nobody who would argue “yes.”
Sometimes all we can do morally is condemn a thing, pray, and wait for something good to do. Christians have an interest in the international order and I think the US is (on the whole) one of the best props to some of the best parts of the moral order. I am a patriot. However that does not mean, I think we are flawless. Our moral colonialism on sexual issues in sub-Saharan African is part of the present international order, but is offensive to traditional Christians.
I would not support most efforts I have heard to defang the US regime that does such things. If Nigeria attacked Hollywood with cruise missiles, that would surely be wrong even if Hollywood is causing Nigeria grave harm.
Now Ahmari surely would respond that the crimes of Syria are more grave than abortion or the destruction of a nation’s sex morals. Let’s assume he is right. It still does not follow that the United States is called to police each such regime and make all the crooked straight.
We now come to the heart of Ahmari’s case: the Assad regime is so bad, the US must intervene with violence.
The Case Against Assad
Ahmari makes his case:
According to the U.S. and numerous other Western intelligence agencies and civil-society organizations, the Assad regime is responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria’s civil war. It is the Assad regime that drops shrapnel-packed barrel bombs on densely packed civilian population centers. It is the Assad regime that runs industrial-scale torture facilities. And it is the butcher of Damascus who has used chlorine, sarin, and other chemical weapons against his own people, most recently in Eastern Syria.
Surely the winner of a Civil War will (generally) kill more people than the loser? I cannot stress too much what a disaster the Obama administration policy was in Syria. Assad was on the ropes, but the opposition was gruesome. I heard weekly from Syrian friends about atrocities in areas outside of government control. These ceased when the government took back the areas, though to take them back Assad resorted to barbaric and evil tactics.
He governs as a brutal thug, but not one like ISIS that knows no limits. I wish Assad would go. I wish we had a better choice in Syria. Nobody in the present US government thinks we have such an option.
Assad’s depravity goes far beyond cynical power politics and cruelty in wartime of which most nations through history have been guilty. Rather, Assad is racing for a place in the mass-murderer’s Hall of Infamy. Years from now, when the civil war is at last over and the West reckons with its failure to stop Assad’s killing machine in time to save half a million people and counting, it will not do for Christian opponents of military action to say: “But Iraq had gone so badly!” Or: “We couldn’t tell who was good and who evil in that fight!” Or: “Assad was fighting Islamists and protecting Syrian Christians!”
As Weigel wrote, “Whatever its psychological, spiritual, or intellectual origins, moral muteness in wartime is a form of moral judgment—a deficient and dangerous form of moral judgment.”
This is entirely true, if it did not dodge the central issue. What are you going to do about it? Assad has won, thanks to the previous administration. Who are your alternatives? This use of violence by the US is not directed to removing a man described as a “mass-murderer.” We are killing people to make him behave as we wish, not get rid of him.
I can tell you what sides were bad in the Syrian civil war: all of them. When there is no good alternative, only a moral idiot picks sides. I challenge Mr. Ahmari to name a powerful entity that would have ruled Syria more charitably and had any chance to win other than the Assad regime.
I might support invading Syria and keeping the peace if that was not going badly right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not do for advocates for Syrian war to say: “This time we will win” when we have two interventions going badly right now. Iraq might turn out to be not quite as bad as Sadaam after billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Afghanistan is a mess.
It is not knee jerk to think that fixing those messes is enough for even our awesome military.
Weigel is right. Moral muteness is bad. So let me be loud and proud: “I oppose the Assad regime. I will support any better, more liberal regime that respects Syria’s national integrity and will protect all Syrians, including religious minorities.”
Moral mustiness in wartime is different. We are choosing to go to Syria. There are many moral horrors in the world of governments. We are choosing to make Syria a war, because of chemical weapons use. This is irrational. Evidently, one can slaughter thousands of Africans using conventional means and this is not worthy of a response from the international community.
Take this assertion:
“If you use ‘conventional’ bombs to kill civilians (Iraq) that work using complex chemistry, then you might be ok, but if you use chemical weapons you are a moral leper.”
Is this true from a Christian perspective?
The dead from Syrian ISIS who lost their heads to swords are no less dead than the victims of chemical attacks. The mass bombings of Assad’s opponents are not morally superior to chemical weapon use. I fear that our writer is importing a prejudice of the present international order into Christian moral theology.
I oppose using all WMD: atomic, chemical, and conventional. Like most Christian thinkers, I oppose weapons that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants.
On the World Order
There is, however, a world order at stake:
Second, Christians cannot remain ambivalent when the “minimum conditions of international order” are at stake. Christians, especially Catholic Christians, have spent two millennia thinking about world order. Through the ages, the Church and its greatest theological minds have constantly emphasized the need for a just, well-run, and peaceful order. As Weigel noted, however, the political peace that Christianity has in mind is not the permanent absence of conflict, a condition that is impossible to achieve so long as human life is disfigured by the mystery of evil—even after the Cross and the Resurrection.
Rather, political peace in the Christian sense “coexists with broken hearts and wounded souls. It is too built in a world in which swords have not been beaten into plowshares” (cf. Is. 2:4). It coexists with the fallen City of Man. And in the City of Man’s current geopolitical configuration, there is only one power that possesses the overwhelming force of arms to deter and punish threats to the relatively secure, relatively well-run, relatively peaceful order that Christians and most other people enjoy today. That power is the United States.
Why us? The article asserts that the US is the global key. We must act, because the general peace of world depends on us (the US). I don’t feel tempted to challenge this assertion just now. Some navy must keep the waters (mostly) free from piracy and that job has fallen to the US. We are far and away the most powerful nation in the world. Yet surely our power is limited?
We can do much, but it is Utopian to think we can do everything. As President Trump said running for office: we are stretched very thin. He argued (correctly) we have many problems at home. We are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Must we follow a strategy in Syria that seems more likely to empower Assad than to defeat him?
Will the world order collapse if we had not bombed Syria? The assertion is absurd. Assad is in power and we are not going to remove him. We attacked to draw a line on chemical weapons use but will tolerate him killing massive amounts of people with conventional weapons.
This might fit “international law,” but we are making a Christian case for war. I would need to see the case that blowing up an area with weapons that use chemicals is morally better than blowing up an area with chemical weapons.
Nearly all Western populations, most of whom are at least nominally Christian, live under the umbrella of protection that extends from Washington and spans the globe. Christians are therefore morally invested in the upkeep of the U.S.-led order, which is profoundly threatened by the use and spread of chemical weapons. Today people living in the heartlands of the West have no sense of the horrors of chemical warfare, which even Adolf Hitler forswore. But that blessed serenity will dissipate tomorrow if the U.S. and its allies fail to uphold the century-old international prohibition against chemical weapons today.
I appreciate the Pax Americana. Christians do take it for granted too much. Chemical weapons are horrible, but so is conventional modern warfare. I am sure Hitler’s moral qualms are not helpful in making any argument.
At this point the article is merely asserting that any use of chemical weapons “profoundly threatens” the world order. Why? They are horrible, but why are they so horrible that mere use in an internal civil war means we must attack? Why this indiscriminate weapon? This is not Christian moral reasoning, but putting a Christian spin on the assumptions of the present age: one WMD is bad, these other WMD not bad.
Yet Ahmari cannot really mean that chemical weapons should never be used without also condemning the US. We have one of the largest stock piles of chemical weapons on Earth. If Ahmari is right, and chemical weapons are in a special moral category, then we can never use them morally. Why then do we have them? It cannot be as a deterrent, since their use is very bad and we have massive conventional deterrents. When could we ever use them?
Finally we come to the conclusion:
To be sure, Christians are right to fret that the moral and spiritual content of U.S.-led world order is impoverished, to say the least. We sense that we don’t belong to Western democracy the way we once did, because Western democracy is often synonymous with license, with unfettered “autonomy” at the expense of faith, family, and community. Liberalism itself has become illiberal, and Christians and other cultural conservatives are usually on the sharp end of it. These are all legitimate concerns. But liberalism’s shortcomings—a debate within the Western family—are no argument against the need for a basic order in which dictators don’t gas children. Put another way, the West would still be obligated to intervene in Syria even if Western democracy were more attentive or less hostile to its Christian moral foundations.
Christian reservations about the substantive content of liberal order, then, are a non sequitur in this debate. Rather, Syria pits international order as such against the forces of dis-order. For Christians, the choice should be clear.
Ahmari is right that Christians should “fret” about our moral decay. He is wrong that this is the central problem with his just war case. He has done too little to make a positive case for a just war. His argument comes to this:
1. Christians should support a moral international order.
2. We have as good as we are likely to get in terms of an international order.
3. Chemical weapons use undermines that order in a unique way.
4. Assad used chemical weapons.
5. Only the US can take on Assad.
6. The US should take on Assad and a Christian should support this action.
Ahmaria assumes the main criticism is to premise two. There is a good bit to say about premise two, but that is not the main argument against the use of force in Syria. The main argument is there is no good reason to think it will make things better.
We have bombed Syria. At best, that will mean Assad will not use chemical weapons for a while, but we are leaving a monster in charge. We are not going in and taking away his chemical weapons. Assuming we destroyed all his stock, they are cheap to make and his allies can quickly restore his supply.
We picked allies (France and Britain) that will play to historical prejudices in the region. Having the Franks bomb Damascus on the Bright Week after Easter is not going to go unnoticed. We have no end game that will end barbarism, only a belief that using chemical weapons is somehow uniquely morally bad.
This is not moral reasoning. This is retconning Machiavellian power politics to Christian just war theory with the added bonus that in the Middle East it seems more likely to harm than help us. The US may have achieved the unusual distinction of having done something both unjustly violent and impotent.
Meanwhile, the money spent in bombing Syria did not go to the unfinished war in Afghanistan or Iraq.