Does “right make might” in Syria?

Applying just peace criteria to President Obama’s call to arms

The President has decided to seek Congressional approval for authorization to use force in Syria. This means that the American public has a week to debate the rationale presented for airstrikes against the Assad regime. Since the core of the President’s case is a moral claim that any use of chemical weapons must be punished to deter any further employment of such weapons, it is the business of churches and other bodies, as well as citizens in general, to examine his rationale. The views in this statement reflect Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) policy in particular (cited at end), but most of the points below could be shared by Christians of many persuasions.

Before the President’s announcement of his intentions, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly issued an eloquent call for serious all-party initiatives rather than punishment bombing to bring a halt to the violence in Syria. He chose to present an alternative Christian vision that contrasts starkly with the narrow-focus mixture of realism and moralism that the President is using to justify bombing select military assets of the Assad regime. The President’s focus on a likely-one-sided aerial bombardment by Tomahawk missile of military targets may address the Just War criteria of proportionality and avoidance of civilians, yet the bombing tactic begs many other questions of principle and potential impact.

The use of chemical weapons does represent a war crime that requires response. But it also poses the question whether or not just war principles and just peacemaking practices lead to the action proposed by the President. Is there warrant for an alternative approach, recognizing that no form of external intervention carries guarantees? An alternative approach need not necessarily involve pacifist premises. Cases of genocide might still justify humanitarian intervention. However, the “right makes might” duty to protect that the President invokes needs stringent clarification. In this tragic situation, who has the right to determine the right amount of might?

In the global context of the present issue the Just War tradition makes unilateral action by the United States hard to justify, even if approved by Congress. The US is under no significant threat; the UN is the proper international authority; no clear military or diplomatic strategy has been fully tried; cruise missiles will kill some civilians; there are no partners in the Arab world and only 2-3 NATO members publicly support US action. Success would at best be limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons. The vote of the British Parliament against intervening with the US is an indication of severe public doubt concerning the facts of the case and the repeated claims that military force will solve complicated problems. The Iraq and Afghanistan tragedies cannot be ignored; their costs, impacts on our reputations, and the amount of deception revealed by Wikileaks are too high, and perhaps the lack of national repentance too glaring, to attract a coalition of the willing this time round.

With regard to Syria, the moral position of the US is compromised by the tolerance by the US and other powers of the brutal civil war so far, with its millions of refugees and internally displaced (“cleansed”) civilians. Many red lines have been crossed. Outside parties have poured in money, weapons, and fighters to both sides of the conflict. In the case of the United States, the immediately counter-productive call for Bashar al-Assad to step down and our past opposition to including Iran in any talks clearly suggest that any attack would be a violation of the Just War principle that all nonviolent alternatives should have been exhausted before military action is chosen. Some are saying we should have gone in as soon as Assad started smashing the initially peaceful “Arab Spring” protests; but that actually overlooks the degree to which Syria is now not only undergoing a civil war and a proxy war but an inter-Muslim war between Sunni and Shiite forces.

Rhetorically, the President emphasized the gassing of vulnerable children and argued that our own children would be safer if chemical weapons were deterred. Invoking children and parental responsibility can go two ways, though, as any parent who has considered corporal punishment knows. Yes, the gassing of children and anyone else is a heinous act of which the Assad regime seems quite capable, given the torture in its jails and other actions. Yet demonizing opponents, and passing over the “demonic” killings and terrorist acts by various rebel groups, can be part of the “crusade” argument for war.[i]  Secular governments, in fact, frequently make cases that idealize themselves and make the opponents entirely evil, a form of Manicheanism in theological terms.[ii]  While the US has not gassed people, we accepted Saddam Hussein’s use of gas against Iran and the Kurds, we retain 10% of our chemical weapons stockpiles, and we continue to produce landmines, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium warheads—all indiscriminate weapons—not to mention the US and Israeli nuclear arsenals.[iii]

According to Just Peacemaking practices, a set of ten initiatives to prevent or resolve conflicts should be utilized. These principles, developed by an ecumenical team headed by Professor Glen Stassen and adopted by the General Assembly in 1998 deserve to be taken into account.[iv]  Most relevant to the Syrian situation are five of the ten: Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution; Advance Democracy, Human Rights, and Religious Liberty; Work with Emerging Cooperative Forces in the International System; Strengthen the UN and International Efforts for Cooperation and Human Rights; and Reduce Offensive Weapons and Weapons Trade.

Advocacy like the Stated Clerk’s, for a cease-fire and a “mediated process” leading to a settlement of some kind, goes against the zero-sum logic of those who argue that one side or the other must win decisively. War, in fact, does empower extremism in many cases and reconstruction after devastation is very hard to achieve. That said, the cooperative practices within and among nations are made very difficult by the depth of hatred and the lack of innocence in most warring parties. Finding common ground depends on a mixture of incentives, possibly including threats of duly authorized military action. Merely moralistic condemnations of heinous actions are not the same as strategic and diplomatic efforts to overcome them. Christians and others of good will must ask whether the inclusive negotiating approach has been taken seriously enough, and how much the US has been emphasizing military over diplomatic efforts, especially in the Middle East.[v]

During over two years of fighting, US relations with Russia have worsened, and Russia and Iran have been blamed for supporting the Assad regime (sometimes with China as a veto possibility in the UN Security Council); the US has provided CIA trainers for the rebels and some weapons; larger weapons and funds have been supplied by the Saudis and Qataris, and some of the rebel groups are allied with Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has actively intervened to help the Syrian government forces, and some of the Syrian conflict has spread into Lebanon. The US has also defended Israel’s right to hit targets within Syria, reminding other nations of the US veto employed regularly to prevent application of international law in occupied Palestine. All of these developments have made the situation complex, more ambiguous that is suggested by the merely moralistic condemnation of wrong-doing by the Assad regime. The US diplomatic failure to engage with Syria goes back to the beginning of Bashar Al-Assad’s tenure; the US is currently neglecting opportunities to improve relations with the new administration in Tehran. All of these dynamics make Syria a place where more cooperative diplomacy is needed, not less.

In terms of human rights and the United Nations role, two institutions that cannot easily be brought into play are the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. The US itself, unfortunately, refuses jurisdiction of the former and accepts jurisdiction of the latter only on a case-by-case basis, thus weakening international law with regard to both individuals and states. This undercuts the possible use of the very agencies most appropriate to deal with war crimes.

The emotional logic of punishing chemical weapons use by targeted bombing is more a reliance on the use of violence than a deliberative process of justice, though the threat of action by the Obama Administration — even if Congress votes against it—may stimulate other actors to step in. Particularly among the Arab nations— Syria’s “jury of peers’—a moral consensus has been hard to reach but appears to oppose military intervention. As long as that is the case, taking military action is likely to have the effect of making those crucial nations more suspicious of the US. The challenge for diplomacy, then, is to devise nonmilitary yet effective intervention to engage these nations in pressuring Syria to change—without forgetting that many US allies are not democracies themselves.

More important for the cause of world order than the credibility of an individual President’s moral resolve or an Administration’s toughness is the furtherance of a system of international law. It is that understanding of international justice based on law that is found in the basic policies of the Presbyterian (and other) churches. For a single nation to take upon itself the duty of imposing punishment of wrong doing by another nation is clearly similar to the case of an individual in a smaller jurisdiction setting him or herself up as a private judge and then also acting as agent of punishment. The military power of the United States, however, still sets us apart from all other nations and tempts us to play a role in the name of justice that may again undermine the cause of international justice.

For information on how to contact your representatives regarding this issue, click here.

The Policies of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

At its last General Assembly last summer, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) addressed both the Syrian situation and the regional context of the Arab Awakening.

On Syria specifically:

“(We) stand with the Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, our partner church, and other churches that are facing unprecedented challenges now and are attempting to respond through new forms of witness

(We) urge the U.S. government

  • to support a mediated process of cessation of violence by all perpetrators, including the Assad regime and armed opposition groups;
  • to call for all outside parties to cease all forms of intervention in Syria;
  • to support a strong and necessary role for the United Nations, possibly including observers and peacekeeping forces; and
  • to refrain from military intervention in Syria.”

(We) support full, public congressional debate of any potential U.S. military intervention, including cyber war, weapons supply, training (as is already reported), and drone warfare, to examine carefully the possible humanitarian benefits, costs, and outcomes of such intervention, including its impacts on the Syrian people, and to support review of the impacts of sanctions and other pressure on both Syrian society and the regime.”

For the larger picture where a clearer US strategy for the region is needed, the General Assembly adopted a resolution responding to the Arab Awakening: “For Human Rights and Civic Freedom: Movements for Democratic Change in the Arab World”. Among its stances are two that speak directly to the Syria situation:

“Grieving the last decade of war and distraction from economic and ecological realities, the General Assembly affirms the need for extensive public debate and greater transparency on decisions to use military force. The assembly affirms the national and international legal processes of the War Powers Act and the United Nations Security Council to ensure that military intervention of any kind is undertaken as a “last resort” and reflects a high consensus among democratic nations that it may serve a “just peace.”   (…)

Members, congregations, agencies, and ecumenical bodies are encouraged to consider new options in foreign policy and to support efforts of the United Nations Security Council and Department of Peace-Keeping Operations to implement alternative forms of peacebuilding, including unarmed civilian peacekeeping and nonviolent intervention, public initiatives of mutual forgiveness, and truth and reconciliation commissions, and to share their reflections on the work of these bodies and initiatives.”

On the related situation of tensions with Iran, the General Assembly also spoke out for new diplomatic emphases:

1. Acknowledge the church’s support of a peaceful, diplomatic means to resolve the tensions developing as a result of Iran’s nuclear program between the United States,  Iran, European Union nations, Iran’s Arab neighbors, and Israel, and affirm that the provisions of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Act should apply to all nations in the region without double standards.

2. Call for the direct, unconditional negotiations between the United States and Iran with the goal of finding and implementing a peaceful resolution and affirm the longer term goal of reestablishing diplomatic relations.

3. Oppose preemptive military action by any nation against Iran and by Iran against any nation.

4. Call for a renewed effort at all levels—people-to-people, interfaith groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and government—to help the United States and Iran eliminate the tensions that have existed between our two nations and to unite the people of the United States and Iran in efforts for their common good.”

5. Encourage members, councils, and appropriate offices of the General Assembly Mission Council/Presbyterian Mission Agency to support measures both to prevent war and to open channels for citizen diplomacy, cultural exchange, and rebuilding long-valued relationships with the church in Iran in a new context.


[i] For a brief description of the rebel groups, see Vernon S. Broyles’ essay for The Thoughtful Christian,  “Syria: How Long O Lord?,” August 19, 2013.

[ii] On the floor of Parliament, without defending Assad, George Galloway questioned why the regime would use chemical weapons at the time UN inspectors were arriving to test evidence from earlier incidents—some of which have been attributed to rebels or “false-flag” outside forces. Galloway alluded to some of the atrocities of rebel groups to question whether these were suitable allies to help.

[iii] See Juan Cole’s “On Syria: The U.S. is No Lone Ranger and Should Put that Six Shooter Away.”  Additionally, in comments by well-known experts on the ethics and experience of military intervention gathered by Religion News Service, Stanley Hauerwas notes that by our network of bases worldwide and other behavior, “We have (already) intervened.”

[iv] The same report adopted by the Assembly included both the practices of Just Peacemaking and criteria for humanitarian military intervention. It should be noted that revenge or punishment was not seen as a worthy justification for military intervention, a consideration that would relate to the matter of “just cause” in the case of bombing Syria when a military stalemate may be the actual desired outcome.

[v] The United States military and CIA are engaged in drone warfare particularly in Pakistan, perhaps foreseeing the collapse of the corrupt Afghan government as soon as US forces leave. Drones strikes are also used in Yemen, as well as Afghanistan itself, and by Israel, our preeminent ally, on Palestinian targets. Prompted frequently by the government of Israel, the US puts continuous pressure on Iran through sanctions focused on a nuclear program that is monitored by inspectors — unlike Israel’s actual nuclear program. Much pressure for strikes on Syria is related to efforts to weaken Iran. The US and Israel have used cyberwarfare against Iran, and the US engages in worldwide electronic surveillance that has weakened our diplomatic alliances with many nations. The “war on drugs” in Latin America is another arena where US military involvement is extensive but increasingly seen as counterproductive in terms of violence levels.

Dr. Christian Iosso is general editor of Unbound.  He was assisted by new managing editor Ms. Ginna Bairby and by advice from Professor Edward L. Long, Jr., and several other Presbyterian ethicists in the Social Ethics Network.

2 Responses to Does “right make might” in Syria?

  1. Profile photo of bnewton bnewton says:

    Thank you for pointing out the complicity of the U.S. in Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds and that the U.S. retains its own stockpiles of of chemical weapons. You also said, however, that the U.S. has never used chemical weapons. This is not true. The pentagon admitted that U.S. forces used white phosphorus in Iraq during the siege of Fallujah, and before that, the U.S. used napalm in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnamese War.

  2. Pingback: A Few Words on Syria | Svoir

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