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Trying to Think Realistically About Attacking Syria

why_bomb_Syria1I’m getting tired of high sounding speeches and am trying to think realistically about attacking Syria.  Many citizens are being polled about the issue.  Following are my three reasons for strongly opposing what the president and most of my representatives in Congress support:

First,  I believe that attacking Syria would infuriate other nations and complicate still further the already volatile Middle East.  I am quite in favor of humanitarian interventions provided that they are supported by a community of nations, and that there is a sound plan for accomplishing the objective. Neither proviso obtains in this case, at least not yet.

Secondly, as a Vietnam vet I mistrust the rhetoric favoring a police action because I suspect that wealthy parties likely to profit from military incursions–in this case, oil companies–lobby for war behind closed doors.  The real reasons for the killing and dying seldom come to light.

Thirdly, I also oppose using military force to stop Assad from gassing because I believe that he is more afraid of losing a civil war than he will be of a punishing attack from the West.  As the rebels threaten his survival, chemical weapons are his ace in the hole. He is unlikely to stop using them because if he loses this war he and his Alawite kindred will not likely find refuge anywhere.  He must fight with all the resources available to him, or die. 

Do we really think that by attempting to damage him severely we can force his hand?  This will probably make him more desperate, and more inclined to play that ace in the hole.  So, I find the supposition upon which rests the whole rationale for striking unrealistic; and I think, also chauvinistic.  "Shock and awe!" We tried that once. Give us a break.


  1. Terry Dykstra Terry Dykstra

    What happens if Syria uses chemical weapons again?

    • Yes, this is a very important question. Terry. A more proximate question is: What happens if Congress says no and the president goes ahead. Then we’re in for an historic struggle between the executive and legislative branches. I think there would be a movement to impeach the president for overstepping the will of the people through their elected representatives. I’m not convinced that this is an emergency situation, so I don’t think the president could validly argue that his commander-in-chief responsibility to protect the republic gives him the authority to use national defense forces for an action which the people disapprove. If there were a movement to impeach I think there would be a number of liberals who would support it. There are some basic issues upon which activists on the left and right agree.

  2. Norris Cramer Norris Cramer

    When will our brothers and sisters of the world learn to live in peace?

  3. Doug Gerdts Doug Gerdts

    I agree that we cannot solve the disputes in Syria — and I’m not at all sure who we would want in charge given the current choices.

    Having said that, I believe that the use of chemical weapons warrants a swift and painful response.

    Jesus resorted to violence in the temple when he came upon an egregious situation — I believe this to be so.

    • Doug, thanks for your comment. All my life I’ve struggled with the morality of bearing arms. I decided I wasn’t a pacifist before enlisting in the Navy in 1964. After having serving in battle in the Mekong Delta I’m still not a pacifist, but I’m much more cynical about the way my nation (and probably every nation) uses its alleged forces of self-defense, and also, much less sanguine about much good ensuing from armed conflict. I guess you could call say I’m a chastened warrior, or an advocate of non-violence from a pragmatic standpoint. I wanted my blog post to reflect that perspective. I didn’t argue on religious or moral grounds, but from pragmatic, and I hope realistic ones.

      To add to this remark about pragmatism and realism, I just got permission from Reid Beveridge, a fellow Presbyterian and a retired U.S. Army General, to publish his email response to my post. He would have left it here as a comment himself, but he’s still learning how to use blogs. He wrote to me:

      I don’t blog, so here’s my response somewhat from the perspective of a retired Army general.

      First, I don’t believe in surgical strikes. There aren’t any. I don’t believe in shots across the bow, because they frighten no one except yourself.

      I agree with you that nothing we can do will deter the use of chemical weapons. Assad is in an existential fight for his life.

      Finally, as someone else pointed out, we can’t get involved in every humanitarian catastrophe. If we did, we’d fight in Rwanda and the eastern Congo. Or invade North Korea. Or have dropped the atomic bomb on Stalin.

  4. Peter L. Forrest Peter L. Forrest

    The real problem is war itself and the causes of the civil war enveloping Syria. As long as the US is arms supplier to the world, wars will continue. I am haunted by the photo of the Syrian soldiers on the ground prior to execution…obscene. They were someone’s sons, brothers and loved ones.

    • Dear Peter,
      Your comment regarding the U.S. being the world’s principle arms supplier relates to my cynical observation that moneyed parties often lobby for war. As I was studying theology years ago I was impressed by Reinhold Niebuhr’s book, Moral Man, Immoral Society, particularly his remarks about the way that nationalism and patriotism warp our moral views. I think there’s some of that going on now.

  5. Barry Zalph Barry Zalph

    It seems to me that military interventions essentially always fall short of their goals, and very frequently (always??) cost more than anticipated. Literary war stories are gripping because one generally cannot predict the outcome. That’s very bad news for people using military options to achieve policy objectives. Can you remember an instance in which a war/military intervention achieved more/better than its proponents claimed it would achieve, or cost less in dollars or lives than they estimated? Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2011) showed that nonviolent resistance is effective twice as often as military uprising is in uprooting tyrants. Glen Stassen and colleagues have shown that governments and civil societies pursue their interests most effectively through nonviolent means – see These are studies of historic efficacy, not merely philosophical discussions. Stassen and his colleagues have found theologically sound bases for societal-level nonviolence in Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and other scriptures. Now, back to Syria – We now face a desperate situation created by the failure of all of the actors (including the US) to invest in the practices that would have prevented or minimized war. We must admit our errors, commit ourselves to better behavior in the future, and NOT compound the errors by lapsing into military logic now that we have missed our opportunities to prevent the bloodshed. Our missiles and bombs will have perverse consequences now, as they would any other time in the conflict.

    • Hello, Barry. I continue to enjoy your thoughtful and well expressed comments. Thanks for leaving this one. The links you cite will keep us busy! I particularly like your concluding sentence, “We must admit our errors, commit ourselves to better behavior in the future, and NOT compound the errors by lapsing into military logic now that we have missed our opportunities to prevent the bloodshed. Our missiles and bombs will have perverse consequences now, as they would any other time in the conflict.”

  6. J E Broadfield J E Broadfield

    I always wonder what can I do, as it feels like ‘not a lot’… We can actually begin to do several things:
    -Question the assumption that punishment is called for. RULE OF LAW is what is needed.
    -Question the assumption that punishment works. It rarely does. Other things work better.
    -Question the assumption that whatever needs to happen must happen RIGHT NOW. Unh Unh.

    When we question those assumptions and act out of our convictions that these do not work, we also might change our lives, which would change our worlds, and these assumptions would no longer hold. It is a very LONG term thing, but it MUST start sometime…. otherwise, we will continue on with these sorts of dilemmas into the future, until they kill us.

    • Thanks, Joan, for your comment.

      The kick-back that the president is getting on this issue is encouaging. People are fed up and want to be heard. This isn’t a contest just about a proposed military intervention, but about what it means for our country to have a government of and by and for the people. I’m pretty sure he’s working toward that purpose. But the people are skeptical. That’s good. This time of crisis is a time of opportunity to set right the relationship between the legislative and executive branches, according to our constitution.

  7. Lyle Dykstra Lyle Dykstra

    You present useful thoughts and I appreciate your commitment to peace and your concern for being realistic. I too get weary of the constant reliance on a military response when things like Syria occur. I would like to see us (USA) find a way to get into Syria like we did Pakistan to get Bin Laden and arrest (in essence kidnap Assad) use a tranqullizer gun like when capturing animals. Then take him to the World Court for trial. Then, if and when government leadership changes in Syria, how can the international community help to protect the Alawite people so they are not killed. This is thinking outside the box at least a little bit. Can this situation help start putting such things into place? Could the UN security council have a planning session for how to respond to future events like Syria, for they will occur?

    • Dear Lyle,

      Thanks for your comment. The irony in this situation is that as bad as Assad is, there is not a well organized moderate force that could govern well if he were to be removed. Islamic extremists are now a significant part of the rebels’ forces, and I’ve read that they are the fiercest and most effective fighters. So, they would be more likely to fill the vacuum if Assad were quickly removed. Congress is likely to vote soon, and it looks like President Obama will lose the vote. If he were to order forces in after losing the vote I believe that he would face impeachment, and it wouldn’t be only folks on the right calling for that. About three hours ago Russia offered to put pressure on Syria to surrender control of its chemical weapons to an international body (presumably of the U.N.). This idea was first mentioned by Kerry. Now that the Russians are proposing it, U.S. authorities are hesitating (according to WHYY news from a half hour ago). It seems to me that the Russian offer is brilliant, because if Syria abides, then the U.S. would be obliged to arrest plans for an attack. Russia would have saved its ally from attack, and come out looking like a peacemaker. It looks like President Obama is headed for a humiliation. Going along with this proposal would help him save face. But what would happen if Assad refuses? Then I would expect Russia might lift its veto in the U.N. Security Council, allowing the U.N. to take charge of a military action, if one seems called for after their forensic experts analyze the evidence and find it compelling. In this case Russia escapes responsibility for allowing its ally to be attacked. It seems to me that in the short term the U.S. and Russian interests coincide: They both want gassing to stop, and they both want to protect against Islamic extremists gaining more power in the region. The Russian offer is brilliant, and seems worthy to pursue, imho.

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