Posts Tagged ‘Moral response to Syria’

I know Bashar al Assad is a petty tyrant butchering his own people in a desperate attempt to hold onto power.  I know that the use of chemical weapons is against international conventions.  I know the argument that evil must be opposed so that there will never be a repeat of the capitulation of Chamberlain to Hitler at Munich.  I know the emotional pull people feel when hearing that gas was used in an attack that killed children.  For a compelling piece on that perspective please read Rabbi Donielle Hartman’s blog post at:  http://www.hartman.org.il/Blogs_View.asp?Article_Id=1198&Cat_Id=273&Cat_Type=Blogs

I know all of these things and yet….I cannot reconcile myself to throwing cruise missiles into Syria.

Yes the President is asking Congress for approval.  Yes, I just got an email from AIPAC pleading with me to drum up support for this with our congressmen.  Yes, I am hearing the arguments that not to follow through on the “red line” Obama drew for Syria regarding chemical weapons will have a detrimental effect on our policy concerning Iran.  And maybe that is my problem with the thought of launching an attack.  I am feeling it is a cold, clumsy policy decision being masked as a moral decision.  I have not attained any clarity that our striking Syria will be the truly moral one.  I am doing serious “God” wrestling for sure.

My first inclination is to ask what guidance Jewish tradition offers on this issue.  The United States is not under imminent threat from Syria, so an argument of self-defense is not in play.  Neither, really is Israel.  At least I don’t think Assad would seriously consider launching any kind of attack on Israel.  The most relevant Jewish teaching I can think to apply is the law of din rodef.  Based on the commandment in Leviticus 19 not to “stand on the blood of your neighbor,” the Talmud in Sanhedrin 73a tells us that if we see a person pursuing another with the clear intent to murder them, we should use all force necessary to stop them, including killing them.  A caveat to this is added by Maimonides, who says that killing the pursuer who might have been stopped by lesser means is murder.

So there you have the basis of my problems with casting this as a moral decision.  According to a well researched and detailed article by McClatchy News Service on Sept 2, there are a lot of problems with the narrative the United States is presenting to its allies, to congress, to the world.  The first problem is that British sources as well as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirm less than half the 1,429 deaths that Secretary of State Kerry has put forward.  For all the details see:   http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/02/201027/to-some-us-case-for-syrian-gas.html#emlnl=Daily_News_Update

But that is only arguing over the scale of the atrocity.  More disturbing is a close look at the case the United States is presenting.  Part of the argument is that intelligence had gathered evidence showing the Assad regime was preparing for the attack and knew there was a high probability of the attack 3 days before August 21, the day of the gas attack.  Intelligence noted activity at a Syrian site known to be a place where sarin gas is mixed, as well as operatives being outfitted with gas masks.  This raises at least two questions.  Why did the administration not warn the rebels the attack was coming?  Why did the administration not raise a hue and cry in the international community before it occurred.  This is exactly what the Obama administration did at the end of 2012 when they uncovered similar evidence – they shined a light on the possibility.

If we failed to use a less violent means to stop this “pursuer,” then launching a cruise missile attack violates the caveat Maimonides places on the application of the law of din rodef.  For we all know that a cruise missile attack will kill Syrians.  Some of the dead will be connected to the production and use of sarin, but there is a strong likelihood that others will not.  They will be dismissed as “collateral damage.”  For me, this is a real moral dilemma, one that I cannot so easily dismiss, because I have to question to what end are we undertaking this mission?  Making the moral dilemma even more complicated, I must also ask why are we so trigger happy to launch strikes against Syria?  Where were our objections to the genocide in the Sudan?  The scale of murder was much larger there, although sarin was not used.  Is the red line truly the use of chemical means of murder versus more conventional means?  If so, then why were we not eager to launch missiles against Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s when he used gas to kill thousands of Iranians?  Or, did we perceive Saddam Hussein in that period as doing our dirty work for us?  Forgive me, but I am still not seeing the moral imperative to launch a strike, only further complications to our moral standing.

Or is the argument not one of morality, but one of policy?  If so, then it is clearly what I said before – a cold clumsy policy meant to mask the administration’s earlier mistakes.  It is an attempt to appear strong in the face of prior indecisive and incompetent Middle East policies.  We have yet to demonstrate any real understanding of the dynamics of the “on the ground” situations in the Arab world, be it Egypt, Iraq, or Syria.  My moral objection is over how cavalierly we are quick to throw missiles at people – all to give the appearance that we are doing something.  They are low risk to us – US lives are not at stake.  Except that there is a high risk.  Absent any clear path, absent the cooperation of the international community or at least some of our closest allies, we will be faced with a devil’s choice.  Either launch some strikes that do not resolve the problem but save “face,” and then walk away; or be prepared to put boots on the ground.  Is it not better to walk away now and task the Arab world with solving this?  Is it not better to task Russia, Syria’s benefactor state, with solving this?

Finally, I cannot abide yet another set of false justifications for violent action.  I cannot stomach how the John McCain’s of the world seem to never find a conflict they do not relish.  For if we look at U.S. history from 1950 onwards, we have spent many more years involved in war than years at peace. I have actually counted.  And our millennial children have known nothing but war.  No, as far as I can tell the moral position would be to keep trying to work with the international community to find a solution in Syria and not lob missiles so as not to appear weak over an artificially drawn red line.  I am not necessarily a “turn the other cheek” kind of person.  But I believe the world would be a lot better off with a bit more cheek turning and a lot less knee jerk violent responding.  Let’s stop the drumbeat for war.

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