On the northern end of the United Nations headquarters in New York a gigantic equestrian statue looms two stories high. A young knight, Saint George, mounted on a magnificent rearing steed, plunges his long spear, with a cross at its top, into the throat of a monstrous two-headed dragon at the horse’s feet. To the onlooker it is clear: the knight is not just good and the dragon evil; the saint is the UN. But today the statue can easily be seen as a metaphor for the United States as the saintly knight. The dragon is whatever we are told may threaten our way of life.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in his August 30 national address, called up the image of America the savior nation, the world’s last best hope to restore morality against Syria’s evil regime, which has wantonly slaughtered over 1,400 of its own citizens with internationally outlawed chemical weapons. Syria had dared to “cross the red line” that President Barack Obama drew months ago against the internationally forbidden use of poison gas. The UN Security Council, along with 59 percent of the American public, do not support retaliation. America alone, we are told, has the military and moral strength to teach Syria a lesson.
Would that it were that simple. Syria has not invaded another country; this is instead a civil war where the opposition, which attracted initial broad support, is now split between those who favor the Western nations and Islamic extremists who embody in their tactics the evils of the ruling party. The battle pits the tyranny of the corrupt government against the chaos and sometimes cruelty of the rebels. What can Mr. Obama’s allegedly precise bombing of selected targets accomplish other than multiply the Syrian dead?
The questions multiply. Secretary Kerry has refused public answers to a dozen questions including estimated civilian casualties and how other Arab countries would respond. Why not wait for the U.N. inspection’s report? The bombings may continue for two months or more. Although we are promised “no boots will touch the ground,” troops might have to land for rescue operations. The divided Senate committee has voted yes, but what if Congress otherwise votes no? Would Obama attack anyway? What of the voice of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey’s warning against intervention?
U.S. aircraft sit in the Mediterranean ready to strike at ten Syrian chemical weapons sites, two missile bases, six air bases, two military commands and one army unit. The proposed strikes do not appear to satisfy just war principles of proportionality and last resort. Chances that they would teach President Assad a moral lesson are slim to zero. That they would kill more people, military and civilian, is guaranteed. Which would require more moral courage of President Obama: to bomb under these circumstances or to take back his “red line” comment and throw all his energies into a negotiated settlement?
President Obama remains entitled to our respect and understanding. He has avoided the hubris that swept us into Iraq and Afghanistan, and America must strive to be worthy of the mantle of moral leadership so important to the nation’s self understanding and the world’s trust. Yet the fact remains that our bombing of Syria, like our often irresponsible use of drones, would inevitably add to the pile of corpses that make this war the terrible tragedy it has become.
In a UN garden another bronze muscular hero holds a sword bent into a curve in his left hand and raises his hammer high to bring it down again. He personifies Isaiah 2: 4-5: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
The bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Autun, has pleaded for a political, not military, solution. Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Society of Jesus, has accused both the United States and France, who supports our bombing, of “abuse of power.” Father Nicholas says he “cannot understand who gave the United States or France the right to act against a country in a way that will certainly increase the suffering of the citizens of that country, who, by the way, have already suffered beyond measure.” In a September 5 letter, Pope Francis has urged a Group of 20 leaders to abandon the “futile pursuit” of a military solution in Syria; and in the four-hour Saturday night prayer vigil he called upon all persons of good will to cry out forcefully, “Violence and war are never the way to peace...May the noise of weapons cease!"
The United States must find better ways to genuinely relieve the suffering of the Syrian people.