Syria and Toast for Breakfast

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syria and Toast for Breakfast

The breakfast conversation at our house for the last week or so hasn’t varied too much. Troglodytes that we are, we still have the daily paper delivered to the door. And since you can’t pick up the newspaper without reading about Syria, we talk about Syria.

To bomb or not to bomb? That is the hot potato question President Obama has dumped on the Congress. And he’s done it in spite of his claims that as president he the authority to act and that failure to act is immoral. So tell me again why he’s waiting?

The debate reminds me of the run-up to the war in Iraq and the differences between Iraq and Syria are, I believe, instructive.

1) The war in Iraq was seen as a preemptive strike, that is, get them before they get us. As such it was a defensive war. Everyone knew with certainty that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons. He used them in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, killing an estimated 100,000 soldiers plus uncounted civilians. In 1988 he used them against Kurdish, killing 5,000 including women and children. We were quite sure about the nuclear weapons since Saddam continually gave U.N. weapons inspectors the run-around, implying that he had something to hide.

In addition, Iraq had missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction beyond its borders threatening our allies in the Middle East.

One would be hard-pressed to argue that Syria is that kind of threat. Syria has no nuclear weapons and is engaged in a civil war, not threatening us. Yes, it’s terrible that poison gas has been used — particularly against civilians. But the argument that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons is the leading edge of a trend that must be stopped by cruise missiles seems specious. The real threat is if President Bashar Al-Assad loses control of his chemical weapons to the rebels and they fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

2) Iraq was aiding and abetting international terrorism. This was a second part of the preemptive argument since terrorists threatened us.

Assad is fighting terrorists. While not all the rebels in Syria belong to Islamist groups, members of al-Qaeda are there in strength. As a result, any action on our part to weaken Assad helps the same people our drones are trying to kill in Yemen.

3) The objective in Iraq was regime change: get rid of Saddam and replace him with a duly elected democratic government. In retrospect that seems naïve. Finding an acceptable new regime turned out to be much harder than anyone expected, but at least we had a measurable objective.

In Syria, as near as I can tell, our objective is to send a message or to punish Assad for using chemical weapons or demonstrate America’s “credibility” given all that “red line” talk. But I’m not sure any of that qualifies as what just war theorists call “right intensions.” None will lead to a just peace. In addition, as any management consultant can tell you, vague goals only lead to vague successes or, more frightening, can lead to very bad unintended consequences.

What about the human rights violations including the plight of Christians in Syria? We should work hard as a nation, as churches, and as Christian people to stop and to prevent human rights violations, but if we lobbed cruise missiles at every human rights violator in the world, we’d run out in about a day and a half. War is always the last resort and thus far in Syria, as near as I can tell, "We've tried nothing and we're fresh out of ideas!"

Having said all that, I have no security clearance and attend no high-level security briefings. That is, I could be wrong. Which is why I want to commend Pope Francis’s extremely good idea: Prayer.

The pope has asked Catholics along with “our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will” to set aside this Saturday, September 7 as “a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world.” His hope is that our pleading with God for peace will “rise up and touch the heart of everyone so that they may lay down their weapons and let themselves be led by the desire for peace.”

Kind of a crazy idea, but then so was the resurrection.

This Saturday when we sit down for (not very much) breakfast, my wife and I talk about Syria. The difference is that we’ll include God in the conversation. Please join us.