How Credible Are We on Syria?


President Obama has indicated that the credibility of America’s Congress and the international community is on the line concerning how to respond to the reports of Syria’s use of chemical weapons on its citizens. While that may be true, I wonder if our credibility would increase if the United States and other countries with chemical weapons would dispose of them fully.

As President Obama highlighted, the international community has deemed “abhorrent” the use of chemical weapons. What about our own possession of chemical weapons? While America has disposed of 90% of its own chemical weapons, 10% still remains (See the reference to this percentage in a recent Guardian article). Going further, what about our stockpile of nuclear weapons? For all our concerns over other countries having or attaining nuclear weapons, the U.S. is the only country to have used nuclear warheads in battle.

I do not offer these reflections to foster a state of paralysis, and I am concerned that indifference and indecision may win the day concerning Syria. Of course, not all hesitation on this matter is based on indifference and indecision. Some of the hesitation is bound up with the sheer complexity of the issues before us. Questions have arisen concerning the moral makeup of the rebel forces in the conflict with the Syrian government: Will the rebel forces act more morally if they gain control as a result of intervention? Why are we seriously considering intervention now, when so much carnage has already occurred? Will hostilities spread throughout the region and entangle increasingly global powers in the conflict? While I fear the possible escalation of hostilities in the region and beyond if military intervention occurs, I am also mindful of the concern that indifference and indecision may seriously damage America’s credibility to do good on the regional and global stage. Past acts of hesitation in other conflicts, such as in eastern Europe, impacted negatively our credibility in various sectors.

Indifference and indecision concerning some form of intervention (military or otherwise) will not address the conflict on the ground in this situation. Nor will inconsistency. Not only must nations not be allowed to use chemical weapons. They must dispose of them as well as nuclear weapons, including the U.S., if we are going to make the abhorrence charge: if it is always wrong to use chemical and nuclear weapons, we should not have them at all.

One might argue that we need chemical weapons and nuclear warheads as deterrents against nations that have them or are developing them. But if we are concerned for increasing our credibility (not simply militarily), we must do more than consider strikes against the use of chemical weapons or threat of use of nuclear weapons. We must engage in an ongoing process of disposing our own. If, however, the argument for intervention is not really about how abhorrent use of chemical weapons is morally, but rather about American self-interest (including other nations’ use of such weapons), then our government should be consistent and drop the moral argument and proceed as honestly and selfishly as it can. Still, if selfishness reigns, how can we point the finger at Syria if its own self-interest shapes its strategy?

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • Derrick Peterson

    I think this is a poignant analysis. I often wonder, as you did, if America’s position as “world police” is less about the intrinsic morality we feel the need to enforce, and more often than not opportunity to provide episodes of global “posturing” regarding our own military superiority. The fact that we are in uproar about chemical weapons while still possessing stock seems to legitimate this hunch (though obviously there are many who are actually well intentioned).

    I feel like this is one of those “damned if you do/damned if you dont” scenarios. Intervention and non-intervention both seem to have complex series of repercussions that will mainly be negative. I have no concrete solutions, but deep down I feel like this is a real opportunity for the church to transcend the varying decisions of political calculus and make contact with our brothers and sisters over seas to see in what ways we can help.

    • pmetzger

      @Derrick Peterson Thank you for comments. Indeed, it is a most complicated scenario. I was especially struck by your comment about the need for the church to transcend the varying decisions of political calculus. As Christ’s kingdom community on a global scale, it is critically important that we consider ways to build bonds with our brothers and sisters in Christ and with them to build trust and solidarity for the sake of the common good with our/their Muslim neighbors who share the weighty concerns over the import of the conflict and proposed intervention.

    • Steve Longan

      I’m with Derrick on this one, it feels like we’re choosing the lesser of two (or three or six) evils. What is troubling to me is watching all of the testimony going on in Congress where they (we) try to summon some sort of moral justification for intervention. As if we have a moral justification/obligation to act now, but we didn’t before. It’s just fascinating watching individuals try to navigate the issue:
      Did Assad kill dissidents before? yes.
      Did Assad kill the children and families of dissidents before? yes.
      But, if his regime uses bullets and bombs to achieve destruction of opposition, we’ll allow it? Apparently, yes.

      I agree, while I’m sure there’s some of morality bound up with all this wrangling in Congress, it can’t be about morality. We don’t have access to the high ground on that one.

  • David Springer

    I am deeply torn as I consider this issue. First, as a quasi-Anabaptist, my first inclination is toward non-violence and pacifism. Yet, as I read Scripture, especially Romans 12-13, it seems as though this call is for believing individuals not governments; rather, Paul tells us that governments might be God’s agents of wrath (and using chemical weapons on your own innocent people, especially children, probably brings judgment upon your head).
    Second, especially of late, the US has not a lot of credibility as in engages the Muslim/Arab world. We have outright lied about the reasons to attack Iraq, have not done an adequate job of rebuilding both Iraq and Afghanistan but our bullying methods of control have turned the people against us and caused tremendous injury to the local populations, and our blind support of Israel against the Palestinian people (and not just the Palestinian government or Palestinian terror groups–which, save your breath, are NOT the same). But, that we have allowed geo-political and racial-religious biases to wrongly influence our past decisions should not prevent us from apologizing for our mistakes and to encourage us to rightly engage this time.
    In the same way, our Representatives and Senators should not hold the lies and half-truths that President Bush and his aides used to rush us into war in Iraq as well as the lies and half-truths that Presidents Nixon and Johnson used to increase our involvement in Viet Nam against the statements and evidence that President Obama and his aides are offering in support of this action. Thankfully, God does not increase His judgment of the sins I committed today because I have acted in the same manner yesterday, nor does He add the weight of my brother’s sin to mine.
    Fourth, that we have failed to act rightly in Rwanda, or failed to immediately act rightly in Bosnia, failed to act rightly in Somalia, or failed to immediately act rightly in Libya or Egypt (or Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, etc etc) or failed to act back in April when Assad first used chemical weapons should not be reason to fail to rightly act here and now.
    Nor should our own financial difficulties be an excuse for a return to isolationism. Yes, we spend way too much on our military and way too little on reducing poverty and hunger, schools and education, children and seniors, or healthcare. But the natural and created wealth that we have been given MUST be shared with the world while it is also shared at home. For those who call us a “Christian” nation
    must recognize that we have been blessed so that we can bless the world.
    Finally, I am not sure that simply because the US is one of the largest repositories of chemical weapons, and has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, and is the most prolific producer of “conventional” weapons frees us from addressing other countries’ use of these weapons while it, hopefully, embarrasses enough to reduce our own stockpiles.
    But, again, we should not rush to beat the drums of war and must engage primarily in peace-making before we try to force/enforce peace-keeping

    • pmetzger

      @davidspringer:disqus Thanks for your multi-faceted reflections. You have given us much to reflect upon in your reply. Among other things, your point on the need for building credibility in our engagement of the Arab/Muslim world is well-taken. Will the possible military intervention cultivate more stable relations with these important parties and at the same time help to bring about a cessation of hostilities in this affair?