The ongoing civil war in Syria is a conundrum. There’s no question that the Syrian government has committed war crimes, using chemical weapons against its own people in an effort to bring the battle to an end. There’s also little question that the government of Bashar al-Assad has lost any support it might once have had from the west and from Gulf states. The simple desire to do something to help those who have been affected is understandable, and one I share.
That said, what to do is far from clear. The Syrian military is still strong; it has willing fighters streaming in from Hezbollah in Lebanon. It continues to receive military support from Iran and Russia. The U.S. may wish to take some military steps to aid the rebels, but the danger of being drawn into another war, in a country that borders a nation we just ended a war with, is very real. Even if we do attack the government of al-Assad, there’s no guarantee that eliminating him will solve the problems. Ongoing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya has made it very clear that winning a war is no guarantee of lasting peace.
Yes, the civil war in Syria is a conundrum, and whether or not to intervene is a difficult question with no obvious answer.
You would not know that, however, from watching the news. With the prospect of a shiny new war, American media has gone all-in on war talk, pushing for the U.S. to intervene, and questioning why President Obama hasn’t done so already. The media’s consensus is that war in Syria is inevitable, nothing can stop it now that Obama’s “red line” of chemical weapon use has been crossed and that we really need to just get on with it already. Even Britain’s The Guardian, which has all but accused Obama of being an imperialist tyrant bent on world domination, ran an article by Tom Rogan demanding that Obama lead the West into a military engagement with Syria.
Now, maybe the consensus is right. 1300 people died in chemical weapon attacks, many of them civilians. That is the kind of horrific act that the international community really should not abide and that makes military intervention potentially justified. For example, Just War Theory — a Catholic ethical doctrine guiding when war may be morally acceptable — says that force may be used to correct “a grave public evil” such as “massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.” Launching chemical attacks against one’s own people surely qualifies as that.
However, it is ridiculous beyond absurdity to demand that America rush to war, without first weighing the significant consequences of that action. Just as Just War Theory says that war to protect people’s basic human rights may be justified, it also states that the use of force should always be a last resort — something you do only when no other option remains, and the cost of inaction is greater than that of action.
War is terrible. Atrocities will occur in war, not just because one side or another may be evil (though they certainly may be), but because war is inherently destructive. Even if the U.S. keeps its involvement limited to cruise missiles and a bombing campaign, the result of those actions will be death, including the death of civilians.
Some wars must be fought, but we should never engage in wars if we can help it. Our first and lasting mistake in Iraq was that the Bush Administration rushed to war, pushing aside any concerns that it could go badly because war was exciting and fun, and who could deny that Saddam Hussein was a terrible human being?
A decade later, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, not to mention thousands of Americans, that knee-jerk decision was clearly wrong. By rushing to war, and refusing to pay attention to any warnings that it could go badly, we did our nation and the world a great wrong.
U.S. military intervention in Syria may be necessary, but it should not be rushed into, nor taken lightly. I appreciate that the Obama Administration appears to be circumspect about intervention. I just wish our media would be, too.
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