The Critical Question that President Obama’s Syria Speech Left Unanswered—And Why It Should Concern Christian Proponents of the Just War Doctrine

The public debate over the Obama administration’s posture toward Syria, in light of recent events of the last three weeks or so, has been one of profound substantive division where each side—pro-intervention vs. anti-intervention—has articulated compelling arguments for their respective positions. As with the public at large, Christians are as passionately divided over the “Syria question” as well, with some representing the Christian pacifist stance, while others embrace the Just War doctrine of AugustinianThomist thought. (And then there are some Christians who articulate a distinct alternative, known as the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, that informs their stance on the Syria issue.)

Now, regardless of what position Christians embrace that informs their particular position—for or against military airstrikes in Syria—there was one glaring aspect of President Obama’s Tuesday evening address that should concern everyone, Christians or not. Specifically, during the nearly 16 minute speech, President Obama failed to address one glaring issue: If the U.S military does engage in targeted airstrikes against key military installations of the Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, can the White House assure the American public that such action will not lead to an operational equivalent of “blowback” that inflicts even more suffering upon the Syrian people and, as equally bad, widens the conflict necessitating the expanded use of America’s military assets, including putting boots on the ground, that place our precious men and women, in uniform, in direct harms way?

For non-pacifist Seventh-day Adventist Christians who embrace the Just War doctrine (and not, as one would reasonably expect, Adventism’s honorable, historical tradition of pacifism), they should oppose military intervention by U.S. forces to insert themselves in the bloody Syrian civil war—as tragic as it is on so many human levels—on the basis that it fails one significant component of the Augustinian-Thomist doctrine circumscribing the use of armed force. The component is the key principle that states that there must be a reasonable chance of success in achieving the clearly articulated goals of the military operation. On this front, the reasonable risk of blowback—with all of its untenable, dire consequences (both on the military operational side as well as on the geopolitical state of play in the region)—far outweighs any purported benefits in giving the green light to airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria.

In fact, the stated mission of using airstrikes to stop unnecessary civilian deaths at the hands of the Assad military using chemical weapons as a result of exerting pressure upon the Syrian armed forces to desist may, as a result of the U.S. military action itself, actually encourage those same forces to do otherwise. As the University of Michigan Middle East scholar, Juan Cole, points out at his blog Informed Comment:

Something like a set of missile strikes on Syria in the midst of a civil war, and at a time of turbulence in the region, can have unexpected consequences. Radical Iraqi Shiites of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq have threatened to attack the US embassy in Baghdad in reprisal. If we had another Benghazi-type incident, we’d never hear the end of it in Congress, and it could been seen as requiring yet more American missile or drone strikes. If the US hits regime air bases, it could affect the outcome of the war, since the Baath troops cannot reliably get up to Aleppo by overland convoy. The youth that have overthrown two presidents in Egypt are protesting US interference in Egypt. Public opinion now matters in a way it did not used to, and getting making a whole generation anti-American is a definite risk.

If the local [pro-Assad] military units have access to small warheads filled with sarin, then likely they will deploy it when they feel desperate or panicked. They won’t fear a US cruise missile strike on Damascus afterwards. (Emphases added.)

That, in a nutshell, is why non-pacifist/pro-Just War doctrine Christians should oppose, among other compelling reasons, the proposed military operation by the Obama administration against the Assad dictatorship. The stated (and morally noble) mission of the Obama administration to prevent civilian deaths from the deployment of chemical weapons by the Assad forces would, in effect, be subverted by the airstrikes themselves. In other words, more civilian deaths, rather than saving lives, will most likely result from the use of chemical weapons by the pro-Assad forces who will mostly likely lash out against Syrian civilians as a result of being under the throes of a complicated mix of searing emotions—panic, fear, anger, desperation, and a visceral sense of revenge fueled by anti-U.S./anti-rebel animus—intensified by the bombardment from American military air power.

To put it in another way, Americans should place themselves in the shoes of ordinary soldiers in the Assad military (this is certainly not to condone, justify, or even lessen their acts of brutality against their fellow Syrians, but to make the following argument) and ask a key question: How would Americans respond if a foreign power rained down bombs on top of them?

(What some people reasonably fear might happen, if the U.S. military engages in airstrikes against Syria, is that such action may very well lead to a “rally-around-the-flag” effect where the sense of nationalism among the Syrian population, toward any violation against their national sovereignty, will further complicate the conditions on the ground that will stymie efforts, by the Syrians themselves, to depose the autocratic Assad dictatorship.)

In fact, one could reasonably argue that if the White House gives a green light for airstrikes against the Assad military—and such Syrian forces respond by expanding their use of chemical weapons against the civilian population—this could, very well, add further pressure to President Obama to respond with a more muscular military response. In reaction, perhaps, to assuage the voices from outside and within the administration—from neoconservatives to liberal hawks-humanitarian interventionists—who are imploring the President not to “look weak” in the face of a rogue regime. Which, if President Obama does succumb to such pressure would make mockery to his Tuesday evening statement: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

As such, there is a reasonable likelihood that the sort of mission creep, described above, would further box in Assad and his forces to become even more desperate—and thus more willing, out of acts of panic and pressure—to further expand the deployment of chemical weapons that target population-rich civilian centers to flush out, in their eyes, pro-rebel sanctuaries in the major cities of Syria. The result, of course, will predictably result in more civilian carnage—coming from both the Assad forces using chemical weapons in response to the U.S. air attacks and the unintended casualties from the collateral damage arising from the American bombardments themselves that naturally arise when any military operation is conducted from the air.

In closing, what President Obama failed to assure to the American public—specifically, again, the assurance that the U.S. airstrikes in Syria would not result in unintended consequences that would intensify the carnage of an already suffering civilian population—is something that should give pause to those who lean toward supporting airstrikes as well as some within the Just War doctrine camp, who are, as of yet, not definitively decided on the Syria issue.