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Syria: To Intervene or Not

Religion News Service provides us with some comments by the experts on the ethics of intervening in Syria (HT: UM-Insight). Now I am neither a theologian nor an ethicist, so I wouldn’t claim to be able to parse all the issues in deciding whether an intervention is just.

In fact, I find many of the comments by the experts substantially less than helpful. The final comments by Robert Parham of EthicsDaily.com.

But even so my questions are simpler:

1) Is it justified? Violence is so easy to justify based on someone else’s actions. In this case, innocent people have been killed. I don’t believe in initiating force, but I do believe one can use force to defend oneself or others. (Christians should consider deeply whether such action is justified on their own behalf or with the blessing of the church.)

2) Will it be effective? In other words, will the situation that results be better than the situation in which one intervened? This is where I think that most attempts to justify violence fail. “He started it!” is a good playground excuse, even justification, for violence, but how often is the resulting situation actually better?

I think it is on #2 that the Syrian mission fails. We may be able to make a point, but will Syria be a better place when we’re done? I simply don’t see how we can make Syria a better place through this action. We can justify it on the basis of saving innocent lives, presumably in the future, but what basis is there to believe that less people will be killed because we intervened?

As an American, I will add one more question: Is it legal? President Obama is seeking the permission of congress though he has claimed, incorrectly in my view, that he doesn’t require that permission.  I think he does require such permission, but presidents have been eroding the war powers of congress, and congress has failed to defend their legal prerogatives. Are such legal issues important? I think they are. They allow us, as a nation, to take responsibility and make decisions. They limit the powers of the executive to make these unilateral decisions without adequate discussion. Now if congress will just ask, and duly consider, the ethical issues involved.

I served in the United States Air Force. There were times when my government chose to go to war when I didn’t think there was justification. I expressed that view at the ballot box, and as an airman carried out my duties. I think the legal justification and procedure is extremely important. Our servicemen and women don’t (and in my view shouldn’t) make an ethical choice each time their government sends them into action. Those of us who are not in that position owe it to them to give thorough consideration to how justified and effective their actions will be before we risk their lives.

In this case, I think there is good justification for action under my first question. I don’t think it’s possible for this intervention to actually be effective, i.e. to make the situation better. When I weigh my votes in the next election, I will count support for this action by my elected officials as a black mark against them.

Note that I don’t think I’m expressing the Christian view. One can justifiably disagree, for example, if one simply thinks this can actually bring an end to the suffering. In the meantime, the church should be in the business of reconciliation, which I can support any time.

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