It has been both an emotional and a political roller-coaster. The television newscasters and the print media informed us that a political debate was underway as to whether or not the armed might of this country should be used to punish the Syrian government for violating the universal condemnation against chemical warfare that has governed the world since the horror of gas in the trenches in World War I. Pictures were released of small children, who had been the victims of sarin gas. The pictures were chilling. I enquired of a medical expert about the effects of sarin gas on the human body. He shuddered even to talk about it. His sentences were short and declarative. “It is deadly.” “There is no protection.” “Suffering is intense.” “Death is inevitable.” For almost one hundred years, despite brutal wars, both worldwide and local, with weapon enhancements like atomic power and cruise missiles, the prohibition against chemical warfare has still been generally adhered to by the nations of the world until this moment. Now the Syrian government has breeched this taboo, in an action widely believed to have been ordered by its president, Bashar al-Assad. I did not disagree with the official statement of facts and yet the debate itself struck me as deeply irrational.

Condemning one tactic of war as inhumane, while condoning the war itself, strikes me as a strange line of reasoning. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last days of World War II killed about 100,000 civilians in each city. There were, however, no photographs except that of a mushroom cloud. We did not see victims in the last stages of life because the bomb vaporized them. Estimates are that the poison gas attacks in Syria killed over 1400 hundred people. Well over 100,000 people, however, had been killed previously in this cruel civil war. It seems to me that all of them are equally dead. One wonders if the means by which they died is of any great significance to the victims.

Nevertheless political leaders at home and abroad engaged this debate quite publicly. The “war hawk” part of the Republican Party, led by Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina quickly endorsed the call for a military response. Neither has ever seen a war they did not favor. Politics being what they are, however, neither could resist using their endorsement to slam the President for not engaging this war much earlier and on the side of the rebels. They were soon joined by House Speaker, John Boehner, but how many Republican votes he can control in his caucus is always a question, not just on this issue, but on any other. The Libertarian wing of Republican Party, led by Senator Rand Paul, was vehemently opposed to any military intervention. They are far too isolationist in their foreign policy ideas to embrace anything that might lead to another unpopular and expensive war. War is also an activity of “big government,” which they oppose. They were joined in this opposition by the “hate Obama” wing of this party which seems to infect in varying degrees all Republicans. These political operatives act on the premise that if President Obama is for it, even if it is an idea that was originally a Republican proposal, they are against it. That is a strange way to be an opposition party, but that is what ideologically driven American politics has degenerated into being.

Those on the Democratic side of the aisle did not do much better. The tensions within this party are equally real. In the last twenty-five years this nation has been led into three Middle Eastern wars: Iraq I, Afghanistan and Iraq II. All three resulted from foreign policy decisions made by Republican presidents. None of these wars was conclusive. All were expensive. There is no doubt that the unbudgeted costs of these three wars contributed both to the out-of-bounds deficit we still seek to get under control and to the economic collapse that occurred in 2008. There is, therefore, little stomach among leading Democrats for another military action in another Middle Eastern country. Many in this nation have discovered the unintended consequences of war decisions far too often to be interested in going down that road yet once again. Middle Eastern civil wars with deep religious overtones, we have observed, do not lend themselves to military solutions anyway. This decision to begin retaliatory military procedures against Syria, however, came from a Democratic president, perhaps more importantly, from a president who has spent his first term in office unwinding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Could the Democrats ignore this call from their own elected leader? This president surprisingly then decided to do what few other presidents have done. Before ordering this strike he asked Congress to authorize his action. It was high risk to ask this almost dysfunctional body of legislators to do much of anything, making the president clearly vulnerable.

The polls showed that the American public did not favor a new military engagement in the Middle East and the Congress began to reflect that popular will. The Obama administration, sensing defeat, tried to minimize the “punitive” response. It would be a “surgical strike,” they said. “It will be designed not to destroy the Assad regime, but only to destroy his capacity to use chemical weapons.” Our purpose is only to “degrade,” that became the new code word, “his ability to wage war.” Perhaps these words helped acceptance to grow, but that is unlikely. These distinctions were also non-sensical. If these attacks were to “degrade” Assad’s ability to wage war, does that not lead to his removal from power at the hands of the rebels? Is it not the stated public policy of the government of the United States to remove Assad from power? Who then are we fooling? Are we ready to embrace the rebels as our choice for the future of Syria? Is there any evidence that the rebels want our endorsement? Is the devil we know worse than the devil we do not know? How many Muslim terrorists, members of Hezbollah or the Taliban have infiltrated the ranks of the rebel forces? The issues are not clear.

If the president of the United States asks Congress to authorize a military strike and Congress were to refuse, is not permanent damage inflicted on the office of the presidency itself? Would any future president ever again ask for congressional approval for a military initiative? Would that not open this country up to a president who would then seem to have the unilateral power to begin a war that no one wanted? So the debate raged and good options began to disappear. Irrationality seemed to reign supreme.

Then a new initiative appeared from a surprising source that, on the surface at least, seemed better than any other alternative. There was not only a rush to embrace that initiative, but also a rush to claim credit for it, despite the lack of comfort that surrounded it. Suddenly the only way out of the Syrian debacle required that we trust Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who now seemed to occupy center stage. Through the op-ed page of the New York Times Putin was allowed to speak to the American people. That was more than some politicians could manage. Mr. Putin also ridiculed the popular political claim to “American Exceptionalism.” One well known Republican Senator told the world that he “wanted to throw up” as he read the Putin piece. There were, however, no other options on the table around which anyone could rally. Leaders thus held their noses and sought to use this offer to move the process along. At week’s end a tentative agreement was reached. If it holds there are many benefits. If it fails there are huge downside risks.

Syria’s chemical warfare arsenal was to be turned over to an international body and destroyed. A powerful message would thus be sent to rogue governments from North Korea to Somalia that the civilized world was watching and was ready to act. Such an agreement would surely encourage the new government in Iran to seek better relations with the world. This agreement, if successful, might actually open the door to a negotiated settlement to the entire Syrian civil war. If that were successful, then perhaps the door would be ajar for a much larger Middle Eastern peace proposal that would create a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, a settlement than many people regard as the key to Middle-Eastern peace. International relations do turn on breakthrough moments. Perhaps this Syrian settlement will prove to be one of those moments. Time alone will tell us whether this is so. If it is, then we will have seen a new alternative to both power politics and to the “balance of terror” that has kept the world’s fragile peace since the end of World War II.

That would be an exceptional result. Perhaps “American Exceptionalism” is not something we are, as we like to pretend, but something we are called to be, in this case peacemakers. That would be a new idea. Perhaps real leadership could then emerge both at home and abroad, based not on political posturing, but on solving real problems in the service of all the people at home and abroad. For now let us dare to hope.

If this initiative fails or turns out to be little more than the stalling tactic that many fear it is, then we would have to turn to “Plan B.” The only trouble is that there does not appear to be a “Plan B!”

John Shelby Spong


Review & Commentary

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