Choose This Day

Choose This Day September 4, 2013

A few days before Pope Francis’ heartfelt plea for peace in his Sunday Angelus message, President Obama took a break from gearing up for yet another Middle East conflictaudaciously being called a “humanitarian intervention” – to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington with these words in tribute to the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement – words that, under other circumstances, might have been as inspiring as the pope’s.

[T]hey had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.

And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.

That was the spirit they brought here that day.

These words would have been inspiring – if Obama demonstrably believed them.  But, for all his eloquence, Obama is no Martin Luther King.  The obvious difference is that King consistently preached and lived a solid commitment to nonviolence, and by doing so disproved the common myth of the ineffectiveness of that commitment.  And I strongly suspect that if King were alive today, he could readily outdo Obama’s lip service to nonviolence with a few choice words of his own on a foreign policy that has prolonged the Bush-era state of continuous undeclared war, drastically expanded the morally perilous drone program, authorized indefinite detentions without charge, and is now on the verge of a purportedly “limited” military strike, which as we should have learned by now is much, much easier said than done.

It’s still hard to tell whether Obama has been playing a Machiavellian game of realpolitik or has simply gotten himself backed against a political wall, or whether his deferral to congress is a responsible way of allowing himself to be held accountable or a foolproof way of shifting blame for whatever subsequently goes wrong in Syria.  But maybe for the folks on the ground these questions don’t ultimately matter.

Despite that Assad’s reprehensible use of chemical weapons against civilians has provided the rationale for the proposed strike(s), they are widely reported to be a punitive measure, in which protecting civilians is not really the first concern.  Not so for the Church, with its preferential option for the vulnerable – not to mention its historical memory that far outlasts that of the State (at least one roughly a tenth of its age).  Just as Pope John Paul II offered an Angelus plea for the hard work of peace on the verge of another US invasion of a much older civilization (which is home to an ancient Church) just a decade ago, Pope Francis is now echoing several of his predecessors in making the same appeal.  Closer to home, as it were, the US bishops are following his lead, and encouraging all US Catholics to do the same, in prayer as well as advocacy.  And in the following letter that Timothy Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Richard Pates have sent to President Obama, they spell out what the moral force of nonviolence really looks like.

Mr. President:

As our nation contemplates military action in Syria, we want to assure you and your Administration of our prayers.  We know that the situation in Syria is complex and appreciate the patience and restraint that your Administration has exercised to date.  We affirm your decision to invite public dialogue and Congressional review of any possible military action, and want to contribute to that discussion from our perspective as Catholic pastors and teachers.

We join you in your absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  These indiscriminate weapons have no place in the arsenals of the family of nations.  With you we mourn for the lives lost and grieve with the families of the deceased.  At the same time, we remain profoundly concerned for the more than 100,000 Syrians who have lost their lives, the more than 2 million who have fled the country as refugees, and the more than 4 million within Syria who have been driven from their homes by the violence.  Our focus is on the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria and on saving lives by ending the conflict, not fueling it.

We have heard the urgent calls of the Successor of Saint Peter, Pope Francis, and our suffering brother bishops of the venerable and ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.  As one, they beg the international community not to resort to military intervention in Syria.  They have made it clear that a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences.  Their concerns find a strong resonance in American public opinion that questions the wisdom of intervention and in the lack of international consensus.

We make our own the appeal of Pope Francis: “I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people.  May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries.”

The longstanding position of our Conference of Bishops is that the Syrian people urgently need a political solution.  We ask the United States to work urgently and tirelessly with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance, and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.

Please be assured of our prayers as your Administration faces the complex challenges and humanitarian catastrophe that have engulfed Syria.

Between what we are hearing from our nation’s leaders and our Church’s leaders, American Catholics may be approaching a “choose this day” moment (cf. Joshua 24:15: “choose this day whom you will serve…”).  Granted, our loyalty to Christ and his Church does not totally abolish all loyalty to whatever earthly State a Christian is citizen of, but we can only say this of ourselves to the extent that we can say the same of Christians anywhere else, and the latter must be subordinate to the former even in the best of times.  When our loyalties come into conflict, which voice will we follow: Rome or Washington?

At the very least, our foremost concern as Christians must be caring for the vulnerable, not strengthening national reputation or punishing an enemy.  And we must not equate the call for nonviolent, diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to the crisis with inaction or indifference.

I end by making our bishops’ prayer my own:

God of Compassion, Hear the cries of the people of Syria, Bring healing to those suffering from the violence, Bring comfort to those mourning the dead, Strengthen Syria’s neighbors in their care and welcome for refugees, Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms, And protect those committed to peace.

God of Hope, Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation with enemies, Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria, And give us hope for a future of peace built on justice for all.

We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World, Amen.

Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.

Saint Marcellus, pray for us.

Saint Martin of Tours, pray for us.

Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, pray for us.

Dorothy Day, Servant of God, pray for us.

Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.

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  • Martin was a prophet. Obama is a government official. Martin could speak the truth to power, but he was not accountable to the people who elected him. And we cannot hold Pres. Obama to a perfectionistic ethic unless we are able to offer realistic alternatives–which in the present state of affairs we cannot.

    But still the fact remains that trying to improve the situation in Syria with a military strike, however limited, is like trying to put out a fire with a flame thrower. But we have to do something. To stand by while somebody’s house is burning down with their kids inside is simply immoral. So the question is not whether we do something, but what we do. In the absence of a serious nonviolent ‘army’ there’s not much we can do–except start creating one. It’s doable. All we need is to do it. And religious believers have got to take the lead. If not us then who?

    • Julia Smucker

      That difference between the prophet and the politician was part of my point. The question is not so much can we hold the two to the same standard, but which do we listen to when forming our own response? Which has more sway with us as Christians?

      For sure, something has to be done – in a way that truly puts the needs of those in danger first, rather than adding to that danger, as your colorful analogies illustrate. I do think that Assad ought to be tried by the International Criminal Court, and that the vast amounts of money being dumped into the Middle East in the form of military aid would be much better allocated toward humanitarian aid. And I’m now thinking my response to the situation should include contributing to organizations that are providing that. I’d love to hear more of your ideas – can you elaborate on what you mean by a “nonviolent army”?

      • Julia, I hope that you are mentally and morally prepared for the same judgment of history that has been passed against such figures as Neville Chamberlain and Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. In fact the quagmire that we now face has been caused by a reluctance to judicially use military force against the murderous and genocidal Assad regime in Syria two whole years ago, when it was possible to avoid any collaboriation with jihadist elements. An over-scrupulous intention to avoid force at all costs is a SIN on the part of “princes” who are charged with protecting their own people and the weak, and “just war” theology is an absolute principle of the orthodox Christian faith. In the New Testament is it perfectly obvious that Christ carefully refrained from condemning the military profession, and, as John Ruskin said, the soldier’s noble profession is “to die for his countrymen.” It was precisely Obama’s REFUSAL to employ force when it could have been most effective in creating the conditions for a diplomatic resolution of this crisis which has brought us to the impasse the United States and her one incredilby astute ally find themselves in now. But the Assad regime has GOT to be attacked, for the sake of world peace. You and the pope are wrong.

        • Julia Smucker

          …“just war” theology is an absolute principle of the orthodox Christian faith.

          If this is true, then the US bishops have been in schism for 30 years, since in The Challenge of Peace they explicitly validated a commitment to total nonviolence as a legitimate moral position for Catholics; furthermore, they reaffirmed this 10 years later and even raised new moral questions about the effectiveness of just war principles vis-à-vis modern warfare.

          While you’re at it, why don’t you excommunicate the pope for going still further even before he started speaking specifically on the crisis in Syria.

        • Julia Smucker

          One more thing: the proposed military strike is not about protecting the weak, it is about punishing Assad. It is the Church that is putting the needs of the vulnerable first, which she can do because she is catholic.

        • You just don’t get it: Assad MUST be “punished” if he’s to be deterred from MORE use of chemical weapons, and, when his regime is at the point of losing Baghdad and finally falling (as there are indications it may soon be close to doing) eventually using biological weapons.
          And not even the National Council of Catholic Bishops or the present pope can pronounce that the just war principles enshrined in encyclicals and statements by the Magisterium through the centuries are now out the window just because modern hierarchs don’t like them. You are revealing yourself here to be quite the “liberal” “cafeteria Catholic.”

          • Julia Smucker

            They did not throw just war “out the window”, but they did say that it is not the only position Catholics can take regarding violence and international conflict.

            Given the kind of attitude toward the Tradition of the Church that you have tended to demonstrate, I am very surprised to see you presenting it (favorably) as a static thing. Catholic teaching has been on a trajectory since Rerum Novarum (perhaps longer) into an increasingly consistent affirmation of nonviolence and a gradual narrowing of the exceptions to the presumption against taking life. And it is that presumption that has been a constant in Church teaching, including within just-war thought. So who is the cafeteria Catholic?

            Since when are you a mouthpiece for US foreign policy anyway? Aren’t you the one who is always telling us “indoctrinated folk” to think outside of America?

        • Thales

          It seems to me that just war principles are definitively NOT established in the Syria scenario (and far less than the Iraq War scenario, which was arguably not a just war also).

          Consider the Catechism, 2309:
          1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations is not lasting, grave, and certain — it’s uncertain whether Assad even used gas (the rebels might have) or will use gas in the future.
          2. All other means of putting an end to it have not been shown to be impractical or ineffective — I haven’t seen a concerted effort by the community of nations to pursue negotiations, etc.
          3. Obama’s plan does not promise serious prospects of success. I think that this is almost undeniable. To quote the Cardinal from Julia’s post: “a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences”
          4. And Obama’s arms will almost certainly produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

          Just my opinion.

        • @Thales: proved by the French and the Germans, incontrovertibly:

          @Julia: the “Tradition” trends, in my opinion, toward limited use of weaponry in “just war” situations. Despite what Thales says, negotiations HAVE been tried, and they’ve refused by Assad and repined against by the Russians and the Chinese. And, as far as ME being a “cafeteria Catholic” in this or any other instance, let me remind you, Julia, in case you’ve forgotten it, that when the pacifists of the 80s pushed for a totally de-nuclearized Europe, John Paul II refused to join them saying that the effort was futile and pointless, because the technology would ALWAYS exist henceforth, on paper. But I presume that’s something that would have evaded your pacifist’s notice. Catholicism is not and never has been “pacifist” because “pacifism” is, in many circumstances, immoral.

          • Julia Smucker

            I see two questions in dispute here.

            1) What is the teaching of the Catholic Church on war?

            On this I think you are allowing for less nuance than is present in Church teaching. You appear to be suggesting that the Church has absolutized just war theory as a dogma, which it has never done, but rather has explicitly acknowledged that just war theorists and pacifists both exist within orthodox Catholic faith. And as the magisterium has observed how weapons technologies have become increasingly inhumane in the modern age, it has increasingly reiterated the need for a “fresh appraisal of war” and imposed increasingly stringent limitations on the circumstances under which it may be considered justified. Granted, this is more of a rigorization of just war theory than a dogmatic endorsement of nonviolence, but the world certainly needs at least that level of rigorous reappraisal of the devastation we are capable of, and these appraisals on the part of our Church’s highest leaders has generally been a lot more dovish than you seem willing to admit. Which leads into the second question:

            2) Does the proposed military action in Syria meet just war standards as understood by the Church?

            Thales makes a good case here that it does not, to which you, Dismas, have responded on one point: the question of certainty. I grant that point 1 is weaker than the other three; the damage is undoubtedly grave, and may prove lasting and/or certain. The other points, however – other means exhausted, prospects of success, and creating evils greater than that to be eliminated – are a lot harder to get around.

            In any case, the response to this question that we are hearing from the pope, Curia, and US bishops (most of whom I’m sure do not define themselves as pacifists per se) is, overwhelmingly, a resounding “no”.

        • Well, Julia, as the “conservatives” say about capital punishment and the “liberals” say about religious institutions and prophylactics, these are not dogmatic pronouncements, and Catholics are only required to use them to “form their consciences,” and my conscience IS “formed” about the necessity of stopping the Bashar Assad regime.

          • Julia Smucker

            Oh, that’s the other thing I was going to say: I am really quite surprised by the way you are throwing around the words “conservative” and “liberal” in the way they are popularly used within the superficial paradigm of current US politics, since you always pride yourself so much on having an international perspective. What exactly is a unilateral rush to war trying to conserve? Certainly not the heritage of Syrian Christians who are caught in the crossfire.

            Look, nobody is disputing that the violence must be stopped, but the desperately needed warning coming from the Church is that this must be done in a way that truly puts protection of the vulnerable first and does not exacerbate the danger for the sake of other interests.

          • Julia Smucker

            Oh wait – are you backing off your previous claim that just war theory is dogma?

        • Julia, the reason I seem to be a “conservative” to some Americans and a “liberal” to others is because I am a TORY; in fact, I am completely OUT of the paradigms of what Americans consider to be a “conservative” or a “liberal.” What I revere is TRADITION, and “just war” is, in my opinion far more a part of the Catholic Christian “tradition” than pacifism is. Pacifism belongs to the Quakers or to your Mennonite tradition.

          Also, in my TORY “tradition,” it is perfectly possible to be a “conservative,” and to be, at the same time very suspicious of “free market capitalism.”

          I hope this answers your doubt as to my standing as a “conservative” or a “liberal.”

          • Julia Smucker

            Pacifism belongs to the Quakers or to your Mennonite tradition.

            Try telling that to Dorothy Day. Or St. Marcellus. Or the magisterium, for that matter.

            Just war theory is indeed a school of thought within the living conversation that is the Catholic tradition. That is different from the claim that it is a required position for all Catholics.

            Also, in my TORY “tradition,” it is perfectly possible to be a “conservative,” and to be, at the same time very suspicious of “free market capitalism.”

            I’m with you here. This makes a lot more sense than free-market ideology, which is essentially classical liberalism, billing itself as “conservative.”

            Also, in my Mennonite tradition, it is perfectly possible to be a “conservative” and at the same time very suspicious of militarism.

        • Thales

          A small comment on element #1. Even if it was certain that Assad used chemical weapons in the past, element #1 is not satisfied. Element #1 is that the danger is lasting, grave, and certain. It seems to me that this would require a determination that Assad has an ongoing plan and policy of such chemical weapon genocide with the idea that military action is the last possible way to stop it (I’m thinking something akin to the ongoing Nazi death camp policy in WWII). Simply “punishing” someone for using chemical weapons is definitely NOT a justification for just war. It seems to me that just war principles are akin to the realm of an individual killing in self-defense — it’s not in the realm of retribution, “justice”, or punishment.

        • Julia Smucker

          As for formation of conscience, what makes you so sure your conscience is better formed than those of the pope (who directly warned against letting the self-interest of any party in the conflict get in the way), his Secretary for Justice and Peace (and most likely other curial officials), and the body of US bishops (who would have more reason than any other magisterial body to be biased in favor of US interests)?

          This is not to say that you are not allowed to disagree with any position they take on current events, but if you invoke “formation of conscience” over against all of these, you ought to have a pretty sound reason.

    • God help us all to repent and truly believe the Good News of universal salvation. Help us to be doers of the Good News and not simply give lip service to it. May we be living witnesses to peace with justice in the world. In the name of Jesus the Suffering Servant of humanity, I pray with utter confidence in your holy will. Amen.

  • Thales

    I am truly stunned by the numbers of anti-Iraq War politicians who are in favor of military action in Syria (which arguably has less justification and more futility than the Iraq War). I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised by politics, and should not expect politicians to have firm principles.

    The words of Pope Francis and Cardinal Dolan/Bishop Pates are exactly right. Serious peace negotiations have to be attempted. Military action is no solution, but only promises more suffering and an exacerbation of the situation.

  • Jordan

    Thank you Julia for your incisive writing. You write in your article, “It’s still hard to tell whether Obama has been playing a Machiavellian game of realpolitik or has simply gotten himself backed against a political wall” […] [my ellipsis]

    My house has an older wood hearth which gives off much light but very little heat. In the winter, the fireplace gives off a spectacular display of flame, but is nigh useless for heating a room — rather, it is better designed for cooking. As I type, my toes are numb even in the first week of a New England September.

    The United States is akin to this hearth, so far as the nation was designed as a war machine for wars past. We became a nation through a war. Through war, this nation preserved a political union and (formally, notionally) freed African-American slaves, an action only which has only truly begun to be fulfilled in the civil rights movement. Almost single-handedly, Americans stopped a satanic dictator whose maniacal desire was to eradicate a people, their religion, and way of life from Europe. And yet, my father remembers the 1950s not as a triumph of the just war, but rather the height of the economic empire. Every working-man had a Buick or two in the suburban drive; even a Cadillac wasn’t a far stretch of the loan-book for many.

    The “question” of Syria is not necessarily realpolitik, though Obama and Putin have developed the kernels of a Khrushchevesque-level brinkmanship. Rather, war in the American psyche is intrinsically linked with economic prosperity and international influence. A second-term congressional slump, a weak dollar, China on the rise — enter stage left a war to buoy all boats, a sober consideration of the justice of war abandoned in a mad rush for the benjamins. Obama and legislators who desire war vainly stoke the cold embers of the fire of state, especially since the hearth of state was never designed to accommodate an endless series of neoconservative conflicts.

    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you in turn, Jordan, for this thought-provoking analogy, and for bringing some historical perspective to the current situation. You can be quite incisive yourself, I must say.

  • Kurt

    I do think that Assad ought to be tried by the International Criminal Court

    All of the options are complicated by issues of logistics. Assad is a criminal. If the USA could somehow send a force to Damascus, capture him and deliver him to the Court, that would be preferable and a most honorable act by our nation.

  • Julia Smucker

    Jim Wallis of Sojourners has echoed the Catholic Church’s statements. He even features the US bishops’ letter to President Obama at the end of his article, which also resonates with some of what Ivan Kauffman said above.

    When a head of state is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 of his people and has used chemical weapons against innocent civilians — the world needs to respond. In one massive attack, the evidence appears to show that 1,429 people, including 400 children, suffered horrible deaths from chemical weapons banned by the international community. That is a profound moral crisis that requires an equivalent moral response. Doing nothing is not an option. But how should we respond, and what are moral principles for that response?

    For Christians, I would suggest there are two principles that should guide our thinking. Other people of faith and moral sensibility might agree with this two-fold moral compass.

    1.Our first commitment must be to the most vulnerable and those in most jeopardy. Two million Syrian refugees have now had to leave their country and fully a third of the Syrian people are now homeless in their own country. Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, now has nearly 1 million Syrian refugees. Humanitarian organizations are calling this the worst crisis in two decades.

    Our Scriptures tell us that our first and deepest response should always be to the most vulnerable who are so often forgotten by the world. The world must respond to those millions of vulnerable and jeopardized people. Faith communities all over the world must respond and call upon our governments to do so as well. The U.S., U.K., and other concerned nations must do that — immediately. And the international faith community should lead the way for a global response to millions of people in deep distress and danger.

    2.The other task for people of faith and moral conscience is to work to reduce the conflict. Conflict resolution is always the first goal of peacemakers, whom Jesus calls us, as Christians, to always be. How do we act in ways that could lessen violence rather than escalate it? How do we unite the world community against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, put him on trial in absentia to prove that he used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, bring his criminality to the United Nations and other international bodies, and then surround him with global rejection, isolation, and punishment? How do we use this opportunity of his criminal behavior to pressure and even embarrass those nations who have supported him to support him no more?

    [emphasis mine]

    The full article can be read here.

    The significance for Catholics of this statement from an Evangelical leader is that it is a sign of movement toward a more unified Christian voice calling for nonviolent solutions to the crisis.

  • brian martin

    My question is…what makes this 1,429 people more important, more worthy of response than the thousands killed by the Assad regime using conventional military hardware? Why is it that the use of one type of weapon is seen as more morally reprehensible than another? Bullet, bomb, poison…they all kill you.
    Here is the truth about the Middle East. The USA is vilified if they do nothing, and vilified if they intervene…often by the same people.

    • Julia Smucker

      The USA is vilified if they do nothing, and vilified if they intervene…

      The problem is that military intervention is the only intervention considered, creating a false dichotomy between that and “doing nothing”. As a growing number of people have pointed out (such as the America editorial I quoted in a previous post), “The question is not if we should intervene, but how.”

      • Ronald King

        A pilgrimage to the areas of conflict led by our religious and political leaders is the answer.

        • Ronald, are you living in the REAL WORLD?! I am in Egypt, where Coptic Christian churches are being burnt to the ground. The mob that demonstrated at the gates of my school the other day would gleefully tear Christian “pilgrims” to pieces, limb from limb.

          • Ronald King

            Dismas, I am living in my world with a perception which has always been outside the conventional:)

        • Ronald King

          Dismas, I admire your courage and love for those most vulnerable. Be safe.

  • Julia Smucker

    This thread may be becoming my space for collecting statements by church leaders. So be it. An insightful (as usual) report from John Allen has called my attention to a strong statement from Florida bishop Robert Lynch.

    This weekend we seem to be once again on the precipice of yet another military action with profound possible ramifications and steeped in uncertainty. This time the enemy is the President of Syria who already is a war-crimes criminal for his heinous poison gassing of his own people a little more than a week ago. Catch him alive, try the man in the international court of human justice, imprison him and throw the key away but for God’s sake and that of humanity, I pray that our beloved nation will not risk a wider war by singularly reacting to an event far more certain for sure than the illusive “weapons of mass destruction” which led us into Iraq. We’ve been there before and I for one do not wish to go again.

    Neither the war in Iraq nor any action which we might take in response to the atrocity of the mass killing of citizens in Syria will meet the tests of the “just war theory.” And, morally, I believe that the United States needs to step back from attempting to be the world’s police force. Armed action when agreed upon by the family of nations and when many countries join in can perhaps survive moral analysis, perhaps, but one nation choosing to attack on its own is very dangerous.

    The rest is here.

  • WJ

    Look, anybody who believes that the Syrian action is about deterring the use of chemical weapons is either a nave or a fool. That is, he or she either wants to deceive you into thinking this or foolishly believes what our Commander in Chief and his Propaganda Machine (i.e. cable news) tell her or him.

    This action will not stop until Assad is dead by our hands or the rebels. Why? Assad rejected a pipeline deal with our allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar which would have cut Russia out of the equation. Assad refused; rebellion starts; Assad looks to be winning; suddenly he uses chemical weapons; and we are forced to “punish” him.

    What I want to know is this: when are the Bishops going to grow some and state what is obvious. This will not be a just war and Catholics who participate in it will be guilty of grave sin, possibly the murder of hundreds or thousands of people. I will start having more respect for the bishops’ “prophetic stances” against same-sex marriage when they get the courage to call a horse a horse when it comes to U.S. military action.

    • Julia Smucker

      Conspiracy theories aside, they already did. See above.

      • I honestly don’t understand you, Julia. I really don’t. Why do you dismiss what WJ says as “conspiracy,” when it or something like it would be the very thing that might persuade “conservatives” of MY disposition (not “neo-conservative” at all), actually to oppose Obama’s military designs on Syria? But right now, if there’s no substantial evidence that I can identify for a purely ruthless “Realpolitik” objective for American intervention, then I’m going to worry more about Syrian women and children who will continue to be exterminated by a criminal regime than I’m going to be worried about the casualties among that odious regime and its servants.

        • Julia Smucker

          Allow me to take you at your word and assume a bit of common ground in our concern for vulnerable Syrians. (If you thought that wasn’t my primary concern then you’ve missed the whole point of my post, but never mind.) Nobody is disputing whether the vulnerable should be protected, but whether a military strike would actually alleviate their situation or only make things worse – although if you believe protecting the vulnerable is truly the Obama Administration’s first priority, then you’re being naïve. In the administration’s order of priorities – which is clear enough from its rhetoric although it can never say this in so many words – protecting civilians ranks somewhere below punishing Assad, showing that America is not “weak”, and enforcing an international norm, even if we have to do so by ourselves violating the international norm against unilaterally attacking another sovereign state except in a clear case of self-defense (an inconsistency the true paleo-conservatives at The American Conservative are pointing out over and over and over and over). Furthermore, if you believe the Assad regime alone and not civilians will be harmed by US military involvement, then, again, you’re being naïve.

          As for WJ’s comment, being opposed to violence doesn’t mean having to automatically buy into every unfounded hypothesis that leans in an anti-war direction. The effect of comments like that is kind of like when LifeSiteNews baselessly accuses CRS of handing out abortifacients: it just makes the voices for nonviolence look bad, and it is ultimately the vulnerable (born and unborn) who suffer for it.

  • Brian Martin

    Dismas, your comments sentiments match those of some individuals I know who spent several years in Syria on their way to the US from Iraq. I certainly cannot claim to know the situation there better than people who are or have been there. However, I cannot see a positive in this for the USA. Starting with a moronic “red line” that was arbitrarily set by Obama (one that ignored the thousands killed by the regime using “conventional” weapons), and considering the brutality displayed by factions in the “rebel” movement…including groups linked to Al Queda (they are still our enemy…right) to the fact that launching missiles into Syria will kill innocent people. The only way this could work is if we were to be able to surgically (as much as possible) strike as many high ranking members of the regime as possible. Also, to say that this does not amount to us taking sides, or changing the momentum of the war (which Obama has stated is not our intent) is disingenuous at best.
    I also wouldn’t call WJ’s comments conspiracy Theories.

    • WJ


      This is the trouble with pacifists. On the one hand, they can’t tell the difference between a mealy mouthed appeal for peace, and a clear declaration of the illicit use of force which Catholics are obliged to abstain from for the sake of their souls; and on the other hand, they are (most of them – – Hauerwas is an exception) incapable of realist thought about statecraft as it actually exists in this vale of tears we call the world. Because of this, they think that people who use force most often think they’re doing good, and are only mistaken. But the vast majority of military actions across history are undertaken because of the economic and political advantage they are thought to secure. And so when I point to a verifiable story about a pipeline representing billions of dollars of energy which our allies and we sought – – but failed–to secure against the developing bloc of Syria, Iran, Russia, and China, I am merely operating under the well supported historical hypothesis that humanitarian reasons are never the reasons why states act.

      States act militarily either out of an immediate need for defense, or out of a desire to encroach upon others in pursuit of their own further gain. This, by the way, is why some account of just war is necessary. Otherwise, for example, Poland’s unsuccessful attempts to defend itself against its many invaders becomes indistinguishable from the actions of the invaders themselves. I think that any position which ends up like this is not a serious position. Indeed, to the extent that pacifists are incapable of understanding war except through the distorting lens of their own moralism, they add nothing helpful to the discussion.

      One last thing. Remember when the “no war for oil” protesters in the lead up to the Iraq war were dismissed as conspiracy theorists? Who ended up looking more like Lifesite News after all was said and done, the McClatchy bureau and the World Socialist News, or the New York Times and the Washington Post?

      • Julia Smucker

        WJ, I did think your assertion sounded a bit far-fetched, but on further reflection, maybe it was more the way you said it. A statement made with an authoritative tone but no evidence to back it up can be hard to take seriously. I am not so naïve as to think there are no ulterior motives involved; in fact, I have been constantly reiterating that protecting civilians is not the primary goal of Obama, Kerry, and the congressional hawks, nor do they even claim it to be. Additionally, pacifists are not monolithic, and many (especially within the Anabaptist tradition), far from assuming everyone thinks they’re doing good, are deeply cynical toward politicians in general. (In that vein, I began another post by quoting Abba Eban: “All politicians take their decisions on the basis of national or political interest and explain them in terms of altruism.”) That said, I am simply hesitant to believe too quickly in any ascription of motive that may support my position. If you have supporting evidence for what you said, though, I would be interested to see it. I suppose I should have just asked you for that initially – mea culpa.

      • Julia Smucker

        Otherwise, for example, Poland’s unsuccessful attempts to defend itself against its many invaders becomes indistinguishable from the actions of the invaders themselves.

        Well, yes, if we fight violence with violence, we become what we are fighting against.

    • I hold no brief for the feckless, tergiversating and financially corrupted Obama Administration, but, if you want to live in a world in which the “international system” is broken, because no one is willing to use the military power of the United States (the only country with overwhelming policing power) to maintain some degree of “peace,” and, if you want to live in a world in which dictators can murder populations within their own borders with impunity, with no more aherence to the norms for war-making behaviours that were established in the wake of two World Wars, then you are welcome to it, and I hope you enjoy it. I hope I’m old enough to “check out” before such an age of holocausts and sporadic genocides reaches its climax.
      Oh, and by the way, if you and Julia are serious about this reckless, irresponsible pacifism you’re advocating, I suggest that you should also be consistent, and support massive disarmament and paring down America’s armed forces to the point of parity with Russia and China, and demobolizing most military personnel. To paraphrase Madeleine Albright (who was traduced and misrepresented by the Left), “What’s the point of having all this stuff?” [If we’re not willing to use it to establish a semblance of peace and justice] I don’t know about you, but I’m unwilling to pay for a supefluous military whose only practical use, in an age of American isolationism, would seem to be to keep the American dissenters in check.

      • Thales

        What’s the point of having all this stuff?” [If we’re not willing to use it to establish a semblance of peace and justice] I don’t know about you, but I’m unwilling to pay for a supefluous military whose only practical use, in an age of American isolationism, would seem to be to keep the American dissenters in check.

        I dunno. It seems to me that there’s a very simple answer: the reason for a strong military is for self-defense. I can have a gun only for self-defense—- having a gun doesn’t mean that I have to use it for vigilante justice or unilateral acts of violence. (I’m not saying that disarmament is not a good idea — it might be. The only point I’m making that one can support a strong, extensive, and expensive military, and keep it solely for self-defense and not for being the world “police” that dismas is advocating for.)

  • bill bannon

    All may be interested in Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times supporting a strike which I doubt he would do if he thought civilians were near the weapons to be hit:

    • Julia Smucker

      Again I submit that if he thinks no civilians will be harmed in the strike, he is being naïve. A nice clean “surgical” strike, to borrow Kristof’s phrasing, “sounds fine in theory,” but that idea is the really unrealistic one here.

      He’s basically just rehashing the tired dichotomy of militarism vs. inaction, or to put it another way, the conflation of nonviolence with “isolationism”. Those may converge in the ideology of people like Ron and Rand Paul, but they are not the same thing. Nonviolent intervention is what’s needed.

      • bill bannon

        Vast areas of even Damascus now are void of civilians…4 million have left a small country. If the Pentagon is targeting delivery systems of missiles which is the rumor, anyone working there at those missiles is furthering the capacity for what happened and is not innocent in a military sense. The problem is that we did nothing when Saddam was using chemical weapons on both Iranians and Kurds and the Iranians know this so that it looks very selective to them…ie we didn’t save them but we want to save Syrians.

        • Julia Smucker

          That sounds nice on paper … but even if, for the sake of argument, we could safely assume that no civilians would be directly killed by the strike, it could still have damaging repercussions, particularly for the already endangered Christian minority, just like in Iraq.

          Your other point, on selectivity, is one telling example among many suggesting that protecting civilians – or even moral repugnance at the nature of the attack against them – is not the primary motive at play.

  • trellis smith

    To step back from a redline of chemical weapons would be just another move back from the destruction of cities and civilian populations that was passed long ago with bombardment of Shanghai at the beginnings of WW2 If the situation on the ground was less complicated it would be a no brainer except for the truly pacifist to degrade the delivery systems of these weapons at the very least. In that no one seems to want the total collapse of the government than the efficacy of the strike comes into play as a form of intervention. In fairness most opposed to a strike favor a wiser intervention with the intent of a negotiated settlement which was ostensibly the purpose of the aid given so far
    The interventions of the Russians and Iranians requires a mediation with theses powers and so far that prognosis is not good.

    At this point the saber rattling alone may prevent the future use of these weapons and it seems the Congress will not pass a resolution of direct intervention. If however the regime were to use these weapons again than I could anticipate the President to order a strike without benefit of consultation or vote of anyone or any parliament.

  • Doc Fox

    Remember Libya, a military intervention in which we did not ourselves kill more than a few, if any, by judicious use of air power to prevent Khadafi from air attack on his people, and no feet on the ground other than victims of our own. The President’s proposal is to deny Assad the use of chemical weapons by attack upon the means of launching the same, which sounds like Libya plus attack upon certain weapons (surface to surface missiles) where found, presumably in the care of military forces.

    • Julia Smucker

      Yes, I remember Libya, the other country Obama attacked without the approval of the international community, or even of congress in that instance. And he talks about international norms. He’s taking a few too many lessons from his predecessor in that regard.

    • Thales

      I can’t tell if Doc Fox is citing to Libya as a success story or not. It seems to me that Libya is an arguably an example of military failure: the evils of Qaddafi have been exchanged for a different set of evils — political instability, sectarian violence, greater power and freedom to terrorist organizations, attacks on US embassies and killing Americans. Libya is not a success from the perspective of just war theory.

  • Ronald King

    The history of military power to establish political power has brought us to this point. However, there has been an underlying influence of love which seems to have awakened some to the reality that we are in this together and that violence creates an injury and darkness within each soul which cries out for a just resolution which can only be brought about by the unity of sacrificial love. I have an image of that action. Does anyone else have an image of what that sacrifice might encompass?

  • If the Syrians accept this, I’ll be entirely in favour of abandoning the threat to bomb the country’s military installations:

    • Julia Smucker

      I’m astounded. Dare I hope for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis AND this thread?

      If that juxtaposition sounds trivial, let me assure you that I am entirely sincere.

      • bill bannon

        The threat of Obama was intrinsic to this serendipitous advance as was the prayers of millions….both…not just the prayers.
        The war though in Syria will go on and how they’ll deal with groups like al Nusra at its end…who want sharia …is the worst part of the end game.

        • Julia Smucker

          Could one then say the same about the threat of Assad?

          It seems there is a real “out” here, with potential for an all-around win-win situation (to the extent that such a thing is possible), or at least the avoidance of a whole lot more damage done. I just hope nobody bungles it by deciding for whatever reason that creating a conflict is still in their own best interest, which I wouldn’t put past any of the parties involved.

          And then a second after I wrote the above, this broke:

          Looks like it’s still a precarious hope, but having exhausted all means of avoiding conflict is not an excuse now, for anyone.

      • Julia Smucker

        The way things are unfolding, it would appear that the joke is on John Kerry. It may be hard to tell how hawkish Obama truly is at heart, but Kerry leaves little doubt. If these negotiations work, it will be a beautiful irony.

        Obama’s speech writers must be having a busy day.