The Syrian Attack Remains Unethical: Here is Why

The Syrian Attack Remains Unethical: Here is Why April 13, 2018

Christians prefer peace to war. We do not rush to war as the first solution or because killing might improve things. In fact, Christians helped create an academic discussion around where force can be justified.

The use of force in Syria cannot be justified. Many people do not even try very hard. They shoot missiles as easily as they shoot off their mouths. Their reasoning runs this way:

1. Assad is very bad man.

2. Assad used chemical weapons.

Conclusion: We are justified in attacking Syria.

This seems sensible (who wants to defend that monster Assad?) until we think a bit harder. Of course, Assad is bad, but who is better that can lead Syria? If you kill one monster and so unleash the Kraken (think ISIS), then you have made things worse and killed people yourself. 

This is the very model of a modern moral muddle.

Nobody is proposing the United States invade Syria and so provide that nation with a just government. Why? Nobody can name a Syrian regime that would be better (especially to religious minorities in Syria) than the Assad regime. When we destablalize the Assad regime by killing people, we are not going to get a better state, we almost are sure to get a worse one.

We should not support the Assad regime, of course. He is a bad man, but we need not support his foes who are just as bad or worse. You can oppose one bad thing without supporting another.

As a result, some of those who do care about making moral choices, but wish to justify attacking Syria, have shifted the terms of debate.

Thank God for this, since new justifications are at least a recognition that revenge is not a good reason for a Christian to engage in violence. Nobody elected us “world policeman” (as that great softie Ronald Reagan pointed out). Syria or an alternative Syrian state (better than Assad) is not asking for our help,  so we all agree that we have no particular duty to police Syria.

This does not mean being silent. We can use moral authority and must. We cannot ignore the moral atrocities of the Assad regime. We should condemn them. If there were better people to support, we should do so. There is not, so we condemn and wait for better choices.

A few people have asked why I have been writing that we must do something about race in the US, but am advocating not acting in Syria. I am advocating acting in Syria. Moral condemnation from a nation like the US is powerful. We have a lot of bandwidth in the world and people listen. Humanitarian aid is a soft use of power. We must feed and educate a new Syria. Using violence is a higher bar to cross ethically and requires that things are almost certain to be better at the end of the violence.

Nobody suggests that ending racism in US banking requires sending drones over Wall Street. We could enforce some civil rights laws more effectively.

Yet there is a better argument, even a thoughtful one, for the morality of hitting Assad. This argument says that regime change in Syria would be worse, but we need to bloody Assad’s nose so we get a better behaved Assad. He will not kill scores of people using chemical weapons if we attack. Of course, we will allowe him to kill scores of people using massive conventional weapons, but let’s accept the assumption that for some reason chemical weapons of mass destruction are worse than weapons of mass destruction like bombs that work chemically. If Assad stops using chemical weapons (assuming he has), then we will have a better Assad as a result of our attacks.

I am not sure the facts here are all true, but let’s accept all the premises:

1. Our goal in Syria is to wage war to get a better Assad.

2. We need to do this, because chemical weapons are worse than equally powerful conventional weapons.

3. If we let Assad use chemical weapons (again!), then other people killing people using conventional weapons will kill people using chemical weapons.

Ronald Reagan bombed Libya, scared the strong man there, and got a better Libya. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton overthrew the strong man and got a worse Libya. We are teaching Assad to be a better Assad.

This is, however, a very weak justification.

It assumes our massive airstrikes will teach Assad a lesson and deter him from using chemical weapons. He will be afraid of our power.

Maybe. Or perhaps he will see that Russia is his only reliable friend, that you can tell when the US is going to strike by commercial aircraft patterns, and so you can always move your stuff. We will punch him hard, but then stop. He will still be in power and Putin will be there.

Even worse, we have allied with Britain and France. Unlike the careful work done by Bush and Jim Baker in other conflicts, there are no Orthodox or Islamic powers in the attack. This lets Russia posture as picking up her historic role of defending Syria from Crusader powers. The Christians in Syria do not like the Crusades any better than the Muslims as they ware seen as undermining the Eastern Roman (Christian Byzantine) Empire. In Ottoman days (still remembered in Syria), the Russians checked Turkish power for the sake of religious minorities in Syria. French and British power (sound familiar?) were often on the other side. (Google Crimean War.)

The Turks are back in Syria and nobody is bombing them. The Western “great powers” are now taking on Russians who help Syrians again. Is this fair? Maybe not, but we have blundered into historic patterns in a region with long memories.

Assad survives. Today is a new day in Damascus and Assad is going to work.  Compared to the devastation of the Civil War in Syria, we appear to have done little. Russia remains. Nobody expects Syria or Russia to attack US navy ships or planes as that would invite “boots on the ground.” Our actions far from putting Assad in a box, seem just as likely to encourage support for Putin and Assad in Syria.

They survived. They can go on winning the Civil War with conventional weapons. We used expensive missiles to wipe out facilities for chemical weapons which are cheap to make and rebuild. (Assuming we know where those facilities are. See Iraq War.) If Assad wants to use them in a year or so, then he knows he can if he is willing to lose some people and facilities. Of course, he will be warned ahead of time.

Being both impotent and unjust in a use of force is hard, but we may have achieved it. We bombed people with inadequate justification. Why? The best justification is that it will make the tyrant behave, but it is at least as plausible that it will not. If so, there is nothing much we can do without invading Syria.

What should we do?

We should bide our time, condemn Assad and Putin when we can. We should support better people with humanitarian aid and education. There are no other good options, so we wait.


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