In his 1930s poem, Bertolt Brecht asked the question, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” His answer, “Why, then, the war would come to you!”
Brecht was certainly correct when we consider his poem addressed Europe as Hitler and his Nazi thugs gave a war. Even attempting to avoid the battles in Europe, North America and others were drawn into the horror of World War II.
However, avoiding a battle does not always mean the war comes to us. America has selectively responded to totalitarian tyrants who have run rampant, murdering their own citizens. In response to Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Josip Tito (Yugoslavia), Idi Amin (Uganda), Enver Pasha (Armenia), Yahya Khan (Pakistan), Kim Jong-Il (North Korea), we have kept our distance. What makes the role of Bashar al-Assad in Syria different?
There is a serious question concerning the use of nerve gas in Syria. The United Nations has sent a team to determine whether nerve gas was used, but they were not directed to establish which side of the warring factions actually used the gas. Much political action and inaction is being made of the use of nerve gas, since reportedly more than 1,400 children, women and men have died in a Damascus suburb due to this agent.
The call by many is for the United States to punish the Assad regime for killing so many Syrian citizens. Another call is being made by those who, for humanitarian reasons, believe a response by the United States is needed against the ruling party in Syria. Still others believe the United States should intervene on behalf of the insurgents who are seeking to remove Assad and his government.
The president of the United States has stated he will seek the wisdom of Congress not on whether he will act, but when. Apparently the Obama administration has not agreed upon the rationale for sending rockets and bombs or other weapons into Syria. The administration has not stated that such an action is a punishment, a humanitarian act, or an intervention.
Let us assume the Assad regime did in fact use nerve gas upon Syrian citizens. Is it the role of the United States to respond for any or for all of these reasons? While in the minds of some any response is better than no response, others are convinced no response is better than any response. I place myself in the camp saying no response is necessary.
The Guardian newspaper recently published a carefully documented rationale why “it takes more courage to say there is nothing outsiders can do.” It cited, for example, President Ronald Reagan’s decision to send the Marines into Beirut in 1982 only to abandon Lebanon to further civil war after 265 American Marines were killed in a bombing. [This one is personal for me since I buried the highest ranking officer in that bombing, Maj. Andrew Davis from Chestnut Street United Methodist Church in Portland in October 1983]. In 1986 we attempted to kill Col. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, which resulted in more state-sponsored terrorism. NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo by bombing Belgrade certainly did not end the ethnic cleansing, and it drew Russia into the war supporting Serbia. Further, the entire mess in Iraq and Afghanistan remains unresolved.
Even with the best of intentions there is nothing good we can do to help. Any involvement by the United States in Syria will only contribute to more war. As more than one politician has said, “Let Allah settle this mess.” American involvement in Islamic civil wars only means we attract more vilification from all Islamic parties.
Am I pleased with a policy of “do nothing?” No. Like most justice-seeking humanitarians I agonize as I encourage us to stay out of this war. Let us be reminded that innocent civilians are being slaughtered by both government and insurgent troops. Attempting to bomb or send a guided missile to a military site only contributes to civilian deaths.
These actions might be seen as a punishment for the use of nerve gas, but to what end? These actions might achieve a slowing down of some military activities, but there would be no guarantee nerve gas use is ended. And there is no humanitarian good that can come from more civilian deaths. Finally, there is no regime change without total commitment of troops on the ground to follow up air strikes.
Again, with the best intentions, there is nothing good we can do by attacking Syria.
The Rev. James Young of Portland is a retired United Methodist pastor.