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Syria: To Intervene or Not

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

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.

The Art of Not Waging War

The Art of Not Waging War

A Chinese bamboo book, open to display the bin...
Image via Wikipedia

As we become involved in the conflict in Lybia, I’ve been reflecting on the American strategy–or lack thereof–in foreign policy. To the extent that we have such a strategy it appears to be big on expenses on low on good results.

I’m not a pacifist, and I certainly won’t object to seeing Gaddafi out of power. There’s plenty of reasons why he should go. The question in my mind is how we decide where to take military action, and what goals we set.

It’s very difficult to attain victory in a war when the goals are either not well-defined, or difficult to measure, or impossible to attain. The latter is usually the case with goals that are assigned to the military but which the military is ill-equipped to accomplish, such as nation building.

Our politics, and the lack of strategy in our international policy, tend to create situations in which our military will be tied up for long periods of time without any real hope of actual success.

For some reason some people think no-fly zones or sanctions are more humane means of accomplishing the mission than actual war. I disagree. If there is a reason to intervene militarily, that intervention should be aimed at well-defined goals, and the means should be sufficient to accomplish those goals quickly. Any other course of action is actually less humane–it simply kills more people and extends the misery for long periods of time.

If we cannot find the moral justification to take decisive action, let me suggest that we take no action at all.

As I was thinking about this, I watched a show on the History Channel about Sun Tzu, and when the show was over I chose to take a run through The Art of War. It’s not a large book. Here are a couple of notes I underlined today:

There is no instance of a country having benefitted from prolonged warfare (2:6).

It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on (2:7).

In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns (2:19). 

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting (3:2).

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The Multiple Personality Disorder of American Foreign Policy

The Multiple Personality Disorder of American Foreign Policy

A number of bloggers have been expressing their solidarity with the Egyptian people today. On that subject I’m going to suggest the words of two friends of mine, Allan Bevere and Bob Cornwall. Yet while I sympathize with the Egyptian people, I am going to comment on something else.

Why is it that our moral outrage and our moral urgings as a nation and as a church often have little impact on the world at large? This is a question I hear occasionally. But I also hear expressions of confidence that, if we’ll just give voice to our moral position, we can change the world.

The reason the American church is often not heard, I believe, is that American Christians are too closely connected with American government and American policy. The reason America as a nation cannot speak with moral force in foreign policy is that our foreign policy is not a consistently moral one. I have a book on my shelves comparing diplomatic justifications for our invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and those of the USSR for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The arguments sound eerily similar.

We want our foreign policy to make other nations free and democratic, and at the same time we want those countries to support our foreign policy goals. Those are often contradictory goals, and our safety overrides our altruism and our crusade for democracy when those come into conflict. Yet often we try to pretend that our pursuit of self-interest in foreign affairs is actually an altruistic pursuit of the interest of others.

One of the nicest things I can say about our attitude is that we really lack the intestinal fortitude to pursue and consistent policy of realism and self interest. But since we do try to pursue our self interest, even though we back off when things get difficult, we are not even viewed as a reliable ally in that pursuit.

If we pursue democracy overseas, people will frequently choose governments we don’t like and pursue policies we oppose. We want them to be democratic, so long as they choose to do what we want them to do. We wanted a less corrupt government for Palestinians, for example, right up until they chose to elect Hamas.

Now we have an Egyptian government we have supported for many, many years. We have known about the problems there for all those years. Now that the Egyptian people have put their lives on the line for their freedom, we urge reform. That’s better than not doing so, but don’t be surprised if people are not terribly impressed. Yes, it’s better that we urge reform and quit propping up the existing government. But …

It would be nice, some time, to be ahead of the game, to support freedom before unarmed people are giving their lives for it, and to actually put our own interests on the line for the freedom we claim to value.

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An Inconvenient Truth on Israel and Palestine?

An Inconvenient Truth on Israel and Palestine?

Brian McLaren links to this article at the Huffington Post. It may be inconvenient, but is it truth? (I guess I need to tell my readers that I often like what Brian McLaren has to say, but then there are these moments.)

I’m also opposed to those who think Israel is always right. But there is some weird thinking that goes on in deciding who is oppressed and who is the oppressor in various circumstances. Here in America we threw a multi-year temper tantrum after a few thousand deaths. We decided it was alright to invade Iraq over this, which oddly enough had nothing to do with that terrorist attack. I’ll note that the international community generally supported us in Afghanistan, which did have something to do with it, yet quite justifiably (in my opinion) were more reluctant to do so in Iraq.

Yet Israel is supposed to just take it. Israel’s enemies, in general, negotiate on the basis that Israel has no right to exist at all. Laying aside all arguments over the validity of Zionism, ask yourself whether it is reasonable to expect the Israeli government to negotiate on the basis that it has no right to exist.

I think there are many things that the Israeli government has done that are not good. I don’t believe our policy must be attached to Israeli policy. We can be independent. I don’t support unilateral extension of settlements. The issue I have here is with making Israel the exclusive bad guys.

Yet at the same time we need to recognize reality on both sides. Israel faces a much greater terrorist threat than we do, and many of those terrorists would not be satisfied unless Israel ceased to exist. Your actions in your own defense might change if you faced such a threat.

Just look how ours changed when we faced a proportionally much smaller threat.

Congratulations to the British

Congratulations to the British

According to Newsweek, Britain’s Court of Appeals has ordered the release of information on the torture of a British resident while in U. S. custody (HT: Dispatches). Both the Bush and then the Obama administrations have argued against releasing this information and threatened the British with refusing to share intelligence if it was released.

I think a good friend lets you know when you’re wrong and a good ally holds you accountable, even and especially when you fail to do it yourself. We are very, very wrong on the issue of torture in this country. In a small but important way we’re being held accountable.

Kudos to the folks who did it!

President Obama and the Peace Prize

President Obama and the Peace Prize

This is just a quick early reaction, and my reaction is that it is too early to judge President Obama’s impact on world peace. Yet he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for which nominations were closed two weeks after he took office.

I want to be clear that what I like most about President Obama is his approach to foreign policy. I think it is much needed. This includes the fact that he has a bipartisan team. One of the key elements of any foreign policy is sustainability and a purely one-party approach isn’t sustainable.

But I think the single most important element of any policy, provided it is morally and ethically justifiable, is its long term effectiveness. In public policy we seem to want to proclaim a plan for accomplishing something, or sometimes even just the intent to accomplish it, and then act as though we have succeeded.

It is as though I wrote a new family budget, itemizing savings in various categories, and then started spending the money before I had actually lived on the new budget, and successfully saved the claimed amounts. (Watch as this happens in the health care debate–we’re spending money we imagine we’ll save.)

In foreign policy, President Obama has declared a new era of engagement with the world, but he has done, as yet, very little actual engaging, and what he has done, has yet to be evaluated. I’m optimistic about many of these things, but optimism isn’t success.

I think this is very much premature, and is much more of a political message than an award for actual accomplishment. I would hope the president can fill the shoes for which supporters, well-wishers, and starry-eyed dreamers have fitted him, but that would be impossible. Unrealistic expectations beget disappointment. Every stumble–and there will doubtless be some–will now look larger than life. He can now do exceptionally well, and yet be regarded as a failure.

Rockets and Bombs Hamper Cease Fire!

Rockets and Bombs Hamper Cease Fire!

I’m working on some web stuff and have the TV on at the same time. I saw on the scroller for MSNBC that rockets and mortars are falling on southern Israel “hampering diplomatic efforts to revive a cease fire.”

I guess one could say that things that go BOOM! might “hamper diplomatic efforts.” Somehow I think those living where they go BOOM! might not consider that to be the most serious consequence of the rockets.

It’s weird what gets emphasis in news headlines!

Georgia and Ossetia – Asking the Right Questions

Georgia and Ossetia – Asking the Right Questions

I am not proposing answers at this point, because I haven’t had time to study the situation in any detail, but it seems to me the right time to point out some problems with the questions.

It appears to me that almost everything I read about the situation with Georgia, Russia, and Ossetia involves ad hoc justifications for something someone wanted to do in any case. One of the major problems with American foreign policy, in my opinion, is that we really don’t have one, that is, other than attack the people we don’t like (sometimes), support the people we do like (sometimes) and blather a lot about everyone else.

In addition, the justifications for what we do seem to have very little relationship to the actual reasons. Publicly, during the first gulf war, we heard about atrocities and about defending poor little Kuwait. I’m not denying the atrocities, nor am I even saying that Kuwait was undeserving of defense, but we did not similarly take a military position on East Timor, where atrocities were also happening. Unfortunately for the folks on that piece of an island, they lacked oil.

In the case of Ossetia, I suspect that if we moved some of the players a bit, but kept all other factors the same, our reaction would be substantially different than it is.

Here are some questions:

Just how small does a territory have to be before we no longer think it deserves independence from the surrounding country? Will we apply the same standard here?

What conditions must exist before one portion of an existing country can declare independence and receive support? (In this case, differentiate Kosovo wanting independence from Serbia and Ossetia wanting independence from Georgia.)

Do the conditions for independence of some region change if it’s the Russians that back up the breakaway region rather than the United States?

How big does a country have to be before it can be regarded as an oppressor?

How long ago must a territory have been conquered before it can be considered an integral and essential part of a country? (Remember that Kuwait was once part of Iraq, sort of, Georgia was part of Russia, while Ossetia was also a conquered territory. Then there’s that other Georgia that was once largely Cherokee country, because a British colony, became part of the United States, attempted to separate, but was forcibly kept in the union with military force.)

I don’t know the full history of Ossetia, and it will probably be some time before I might even imagine, probably incorrectly, that I understand the situation, but it seems to me that we are not working on the same set of principles in all of these various places.

It sounds to me like atrocities are military actions carried out by the other guys, and invasions are when other people’s armies enter a country that is not their own.

If we did that sort of thing, of course, we would demand that one consider the fact that we were merely defending the just desire of the local population for self-determination. Or something like that.

Some background from the BBC.

Hillary Clinton Should not be Blamed for This

Hillary Clinton Should not be Blamed for This

All my readers know by now that I prefer Barack Obama out of the available options. Now we receive the exciting news that Bill Clinton disagrees with her on free trade with Colombia. Huge surprise there, considering he pushed NAFTA through, though it’s mildly surprising that he isn’t trying to cover it all up.

Personally I’m with Bill Clinton on this one. I favor even the slow progress of free trade, and I am unhappy with both Democratic candidates for their stand on this one. But such is life. There is no candidate I can endorse without a footnote.

But I think it is terribly unfair if people criticize Hillary Clinton for her husband’s position on this issue. My wife and I can argue a great deal on politics, and I think we’re both better for it. Before each election we sit down together with a sample ballot and debate our intended votes. Occasionally one of us changes the other’s mind. Mostly we clarify. Sometimes we go back and do more research. But I think both our votes are more intelligent because of the process.

Two people don’t have to agree on everything just because they are married. There may be some basis to question Hillary Clinton’s firmness on free trade, but this isn’t one of them.