Today, Secretary Kerry offered another thoughtful reflection at the State Department about Syria (his second this week). Last year, as many know, the President warned that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people, this would cross a “red line” and would spark a military response from the U.S. As the Secretary’s speech today made clear, the Syrian regime crossed this line. He did not say outright how the President planned to respond to recent chemical attacks in Damascus. But it was pretty clear he was preparing everyone for a military strike.
After laying out the evidence, Kerry got to the tough question: so now what? “Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about,” said Kerry, going on:
“And make no mistake, in an increasingly complicated world of sectarian and religious extremist violence, what we choose to do or not do matters in real ways to our own security. Some cite the risk of doing things, but we need to ask, what is the risk of doing nothing?
Kerry is making an assumption here – that to not respond militarily means that you are doing nothing. But is that right? Is the world – and the U.S. – currently doing nothing? Is a military strike the only conceivable, or acceptable, response that constitutes something? Are attempts to address the situation through non-military means so ineffectual as to equate to lack of action and so moral failure?
As might be clear, I have problems with this assumption.
But let’s start with the facts Kerry laid out.
Expressing sensitivity to the wariness the American public might have in response to being shown “unequivocal proof” to justify military actions, with the memory of the so-called smoking gun evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction still fresh in our minds, he presented what the government knows at this point:
“We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations. And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.
And we know, as does the world, that just 90 minutes later all hell broke loose in the social media. With our own eyes we have seen the thousands of reports from 11 separate sites in the Damascus suburbs. All of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching with spasms, coughing, rapid heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and death.
The United States Government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. Even the first responders, the doctors, nurses, and medics who tried to save them, they became victims themselves. We saw them gasping for air, terrified that their own lives were in danger.”
He acknowledged the war weariness of the American people – the long, long decade of our discontent in Iraq and Afghanistan – conflagrations that have tried our country financially, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually (consider the number of soldiers who suffer from PTSD, and the challenges their families have faced), while seeming to only to feed anti-Americanism around the world. These wars have brought little that we can point to unequivocally as victories or achievements, and as we have wound down our military presence in both countries, we are leaving them on the brink of utter implosion. Yes, we’re weary. Yes, we’re wary. For good reason.
But the question remains pressing, and we cannot ignore it. Not any of us. After all, we live in a democracy, with decision-makers who are accountable to the will of the people (at least in theory). As such, what this country does in response to the attack in Syria will reflect our will in the aggregate. As a democratic purist, I’d say we have a responsibility as citizens, as much as our leaders do, to wrestle with this.
But even more fundamental than that, we are moral beings with conscience. How can we ignore the suffering of others when confronted with it? Certainly it’s tempting to dodge. The question is so hard, the solutions all seem so imperfect. Violence – whether enacted through chemical weapons against civilians or by military onslaught as part of a humanitarian response – is not just world rending, but heart rending. It makes me, for one, really, really, glad I am not in the President’s shoes.
But what, as a Christian, or even simply as a person of conscience, do we do? What is the answer here?
First, pray. Pray hard. When words seem to fail to capture the severity or complexity of the situation, when I am overwhelmed, I find strength in succumbing to prayer. I pray for the spirits of those who have died (approximately 100,000 so far in this war), and their families. I pray for civilians caught in the merciless violence, as well as the soldiers and decision-makers on both sides – Bashar al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army and all its offshoots — the so-called fascists, the so-called jihadists, the so-called freedom-fighters. All of them — on every side — children of God.
And I pray, hard, for the peacemakers – those scrambling, shuttling, to try to make negotiations or nonviolent resolution a viable option by convincing each side that this option will be more likely to meet at least some of their demands/interests than the ongoing and seemingly unending cycle of violence. We know that the longer this thing goes on, the more vested each side gets to its cause, the less willing to compromise, the more complicated the demands, and the harder to resolve the conflict. Over time, the very world around violent conflict transforms to feed its insatiable hunger – economic, political, social dynamics and systems conform to keep the conflict growing and deepening. I pray for those pushing against these dynamics. I pray that they will speak with insight, strike chords, that they will be able to access the right people, that they have the support they need and the space they need from the international community, that they have patience and resolve. I pray hard.
But just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about, Kerry said.
I know the Syrian people feel abandoned by the world. They have made their lament clear. Who can forget the image of Syrians standing on rubble holding a poster after the attacks in Boston last spring declaring that we are with you, victims of the Boston bombings, and be with us too. This plea for us to understand the helplessness they felt, their cry for assistance, the shared humanity all those suffering from bombs experience – shared condolences. Violence is the great equalizer, no?
Prayer (or meditation or time spent listening to the heart) is crucial, I think, to prepare anyone for these kind of life or death decisions. But prayer is not enough, I admit. Kerry seemed to be preparing us for military action… he was making the moral case – stoking a sense of the “fierce urgency of now.”
I understand the case for military action. I do. In ways, I want it – the swift violent repercussion to a despot. In these situations, I’m forced again to confront a question I have a hard time answering, despite all the classes I’ve taken on just war theory or humanitarian intervention: am I a pacifist in all cases? In response to Rwanda? The Holocaust? When people are being slaughtered before our eyes and the slow slog of diplomacy and peacemaking/peacebuilding just seems to prolong the suffering? To answer yes to that question can seem callous to human suffering, as Kerry seemed to be intimating in his speech.
But here’s the problem: the assumption that military action will be more successful, will solve the problem, will staunch the flow of blood. In this case, at least, I think we know that it won’t. Max Fischer, writing in the Washington Post, summed it up like this:
“The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other.”
The point of responding with a limited strike, according to Fisher and articulated by Obama in a PBS interview this week, is to take a moral stance against the use of chemical weapons – to show there are repercussions for using them, to defend international humanitarian law. In other words, the strike is not about trying to turn the tide of this war, but to send a global message in defense of the Geneva Conventions to prevent future use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere.
If we’re determining whether to launch a military attack for that reason, that’s one thing. But, honestly, that doesn’t answer the question Kerry posed: what do we do about the massive suffering going on in Syria now? Kerry did not just speak just about the need to defend international law on chemical weapons. He pointed to the need to respond to the suffering of the Syrians – he called this strike defense of the innocent Syrians, not just defense of law.
If the military options are all bad, does that mean we just pray? Is not doing anything militarily mean we are not doing anything? That we are simply longing for peace, thinking that will bring it about? Naive and ineffectual dreamers?
Of course not.
And this is the problem I have, in the end, with how these moral dilemmas are currently being posited. Kerry asked: Some cite the risk of doing things, but we need to ask, what is the risk of doing nothing?
To not respond military does not mean that we are not responding — that we are doing nothing. There are other, viable, options. Yes, they are challenging – diplomacy and nonmilitary, nonviolent methods for responding to violence and injustice are hard and frustrating. The tangled web of dynamics in the Middle East – allies and enemies – makes navigating the situation challenging (in that it’s not just about getting the Syrian government and the rebels (who are themselves fractured) to the table, but dealing with all the other secondary actors). But certainly they are no harder than waging and winning a war in a case like this. When you have the most powerful military in the world, going into war is the easy part. Toppling Saddam was easy. But then what?
I’m tired, tired, of hearing that to pursue the diplomatic, political, peacemaking option is just hand wringing, delay tactics, the equivalent of moral weakness and general paralysis. That it is impossible. I’m tired of the lack of creativity, resourcefulness, commitment to these enterprises. What if we put as much money and time into those efforts as we did our military efforts? Might they be more successful? President Jimmy Carter has called for a new, invigorated global peace effort focusing on Syria – beginning with a summit. Of course, the realists (as in, those influenced by realpolitik) dismiss him. But let’s not forget he is the only U.S. president in history to successfully negotiate a peace deal in the Middle East.
In recent years, there has emerged in Christian thought a new paradigm in response to war – just peacemaking. It attempts to provide a third way to the usual binary presentation of just war theory – between the pacifists and those who argue for waging a just war (usually, in today’s international legal norm discourse, referred to as a humanitarian intervention). It lays out several practices – actions that can be taken – to prevent violence from breaking out in the first instance, and to respond to it when it has. We are no longer faced with a black/white decision between going to war or not doing anything. We have mechanisms in place. We just need to redouble our efforts.
So I write. I pray. I support the efforts of those who are working on nonviolent, nonmilitary means to address the situation (some of whom are my colleagues at the U.S. Institute of Peace). And I long for peace.