Washington and War

Washington is facing a decision it didn’t want, a choice fraught with moral peril, global consequence, human costs and political implications. President Obama stunned the Capitol by deciding to do what he had said presidents should do: require Congress to act before the nation commits military forces.

The President seems trapped by his own statements and conscience, the moral and “red” line crossed when a dictator gasses his own people.  He is restrained by his past statements about the imperatives of international support and Congressional approval. He seems haunted by his deep reservations about the use of force and experience in trying to end wars that have no clear purpose or conclusion. As his staff gathered for a final session, expecting a decision to authorize military action, the President went for a long walk with a trusted aid and came back and said “not yet, we will go to Congress” for a debate and decision on the wisdom of committing US forces to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians.  Caught…

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The Congress having insisted the President consult them seems stunned the President did what they asked and what Senator Obama had called for. As of this writing, they are not sufficiently engaged to return from their month long recess. They prefer to complain about lack of consultation than to debate and decide on what should be done. They will take up this matter of national war and peace when their vacations and town halls are over on September 9. Inspiring…

The Republicans are in disarray with McCain neo-con wing saying: Too little too late. We told you so.  It won’t work, but we ought to do it. The Paul libertarian wing saying: no national interest at stake, we’re not the world’s policeman, it costs too much and we have needs at home. The leadership…Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell say we “welcome” the decision to involve Congress (“you blinked”) and we will take it up when we get back in town and we will get back to you on what the nation should do. Divided…

The Democrats are all over the place, caught between supporting the President and their resistance to the use of force. If President Bush had proposed hitting Assad for using chemical weapons, the opposition would likely have been lead by Senators Kerry and Obama. Nancy Pelosi is for it. Corey Booker opposes it. Hillary Clinton is silent so far. The President can’t lose, but they don’t want to vote for it.  Confusing…

Military leaders prepare for action and warn of unintended consequences. They bear the burden and costs of our recent unwise wars. They know better it is easier to start wars, than end them. What is the objective? The exit strategy? The costs? Sobering…

 The International Community seems paralyzed. Appalled by the breach of this fundamental global prohibition, the United Nations seems powerless to do anything. Inspectors will tell us chemical weapons were used, but not who used them. A Security Council that should act decisively is tragically paralyzed by a Russian veto. Dysfunctional…

Catholic leaders offer strong and appropriate words of warning against the use of force. Pope Francis has forcefully condemned the use of chemical weapons made an urgent and fervent appeal for prayer, fasting and dialogue for peace, warning “war begets war, violence begets violence.” The leaders of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops call for “the path of dialogue and negotiation” as “the only option to put an end to the conflict and to the violence.” They rightly point out war often leaves the innocent and the world worse off, referring to the “inevitable havoc and pain and suffering and deaths” that come with military action. Faithful…

Ethicists (including here at America) use traditional just war moral criteria to raise serious ethical  questions on just cause, authority, last resort and probability of success. Most, but not all, suggest military action cannot be morally justified under current circumstances. Useful…

Like many others, I am left with more questions than answers. I welcome the needed words of restraint from Pope Francis and our bishops and the warnings of moral theologians. I will join in the Holy Father’s time of prayer and fasting for peace next Saturday.  What is the goal?  The end game? The human costs? The unintended consequences? The implications of near unilateral action?  However, what does Catholic moral teaching offer when a desperate dictator uses the chemical weapons against the innocent and the international community is unable to act? What happened to the “duty to intervene” to protect the innocent? Dialogue with whom? What are the moral and human costs of inaction when the global prohibition against chemical weapons is blatantly violated?

Why are our options so limited? Nothing or military strikes? What do we have a CIA for if not to act in such situations? Why did we wait so long to consider assisting the rebels as their number grew more hostile to religious pluralism and democratic values? Why is the United States so isolated in the world that we may need to act almost alone? Who will pay the costs of military action?  Whose lives are at risk? Are we able to deal with the unintended consequences of action …or inaction?

My sense is that whether we are united or not, whether it is justified or not,  President Obama has decided to punish Assad and his regime for violating the fundamental prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It is small comfort that he seems almost as reluctant as I am to undertake this action.  However, the President will do all he can to persuade the Congress and the rest of us that this action is necessary.  And I suspect he will pray that this terrible choice is the right one.

We all should pray as well…and participate in this unexpected, but necessary debate on what is the right thing for our nation to do as we watch children die from gasses sent into their homes by a desperate dictator. What is right, wise and necessary?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Thomas Mulrooney
4 years 8 months ago
This is thus far the only commentary on the Syrian crisis that I have seen that acknowledges the awful complexity of the problem. Usually when we see an evil person threatening or injuring children, we shoot him dead. We hesitate here, and must ask ourselves, again and again, "Why?"
ed gleason
4 years 8 months ago
There is no question that there is enormous doubt about any military strike outcome. The enormous doubt shouts 'no action'.
Bill Mazzella
4 years 8 months ago
There is no simple solution as the rebels have been infiltrated by terrorist groups. Notice how our grand intervention in Iraq is going; with daily numerous killings. If force helped we would be doing it all the time. It is easier to fill our prisons than to offer people a living wage. Interesting that Christians still justify a "just war" criteria when the Master got crucified. Oh I forgot that that great war monger Augustine declared that the age of the martyrs is over. We have Augustine to thank that Christians are so into war that their leaders feel they can get away with pointless military action.
Stanley Kopacz
4 years 8 months ago
If anyone is desperate for military action against the Assad regime, they can join the Al Qaeda Syria Brigade.
Carlos Orozco
4 years 8 months ago
R2P theoricians, maybe.
Carlos Orozco
4 years 8 months ago
"What do we have a CIA for if not to act in such situations? Why did we wait so long to consider assisting the rebels as their number grew more hostile to religious pluralism and democratic values? Why is the United States so isolated in the world that we may need to act almost alone?" Answer 1: To fund, train and equip al-Qaeda in Syria (among other places) and then snoop the entire world under the pretext of preventing terrorism. Answer 2: From the very beginning, the most effecetive anti-Assad forces were radical Sallafists, many of whom had been employed in the "freeing" of Libya. Answer 3: Iraq, Afghanistan and now a false-flag operation in Syria.
Marie Rehbein
4 years 8 months ago
If this were happening in, say, a part of Africa where, say, there is no oil, we would not even be considering taking any military action. The US has interest groups that have motives that are helped when a moral line is crossed by some identifiable individual or group in resource rich regions, and these folks are behind calls to do something manly like punishing with force. If the interests of Israel were not likely to be endangered by US military action, you could bet that there would have been military action already.
Tim O'Leary
4 years 8 months ago
Time to get off the golf course and start working for that 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. There is no Just War case for a punitive strike that hits innocent civilians and doesn't even intend to accomplish anything else. There might be one to enforce a no-fly zone. Obama insists he doesn’t need congressional approval even as he asks for it, because the genius doesn’t know what to do and his "allies" have abandoned him. The Middle East is more dangerous now than when he went there to give his arrogant Cairo speech. Weakness breeds war. The hypocrisy is astounding. Recall that Biden (in 2007) said a president should be impeached if he acts without congressional approval. Obama’s speech in 2002 (replacing Iraq with Syria and Saddam with Assad), when he arrogantly opposed the last President: “Now let me be clear--I suffer no illusions about Bashar Al-Assad. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, thwarted U.N. inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Syrian people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Assad poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Syrian economy is in shambles, that the Syrian military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”
J Cosgrove
4 years 8 months ago
Tim, Bashar Assad is a puppet. He is only president as a figure head because he has the Assad name. His father was a ruthless dictator and Bashar wanted no part of the political life. He was a medical doctor studying eye surgery in the UK when his brother and heir to the father died in an auto crash. He was made the reluctant dictator but in reality answers to his Alawite tribesman. So getting rid of him is not the answer. Maybe the Russians could save face for everyone and engineer his removal and settlement elsewhere in the world and install someone who all could say is a new direction but it would be a fraud. But that is how a lot of international politics is played. The real power is in Iran and they need Syrian control so it is unlikely they will agree to anything that does not allow them to control a large section of Syria and access to Lebanon. I am surprised at the naiveté of the analysis on this situation. This is all known to the White House and other players but seems to elude the press and the authors here. Rand Paul had a possible solution, negotiate with the Russians behind the scenes to put someone else in power that would essentially break up the country and stop the fighting. Both Putin and Obama would then look like Nobel Peace prize winners and it would be a joke as the real problem is not addressed till another day.
Marie Rehbein
4 years 8 months ago
Right! The real power is Iran. It has been rumored that Iran is behind a lot of the destabilizing in the Middle East with the intent of making itself the head of the region.
Jim McCrea
4 years 8 months ago
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jul/05/highereducation.news From a review of "A Problem from Hell" by Samantha Power 656pp, Flamingo "The debate about why it is so difficult to get the governments of rich and powerful countries to do anything effective about massacre, persecution and genocide raged with especial intensity throughout the 90s. What were the mechanisms of denial that allowed political leaders to procrastinate in the face of such plainly evil developments, and why, when action was in some cases finally taken, was intervention so clumsy and the restoration of damaged societies so often mismanaged?" Etc

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