Monday, September 23, 2013

Syria: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of War

In light of the flurry of headlines related to recent events surrounding the 30 month civil war in Syria, my thoughts quickly gravitated to Christ’s parable in Luke 14:31. As Jesus recounted the demands of true discipleship, He illustrated the realities of following Him with a king’s cost-benefit analysis for going to war. His point is well taken, no responsible king rushes headlong into battle without first thoroughly and carefully tabulating the price tag. 

Even though Christ was referencing those who claim to follow Him, His example of a king comprehensively assessing the potential of war is pertinent. So how should Christians assess the current sabre rattling related to Syria and possible US involvement? Better yet, what should guide our thinking as we seek to make God-informed decisions? 

As one who subscribes to what is known as Just War theory, there are a number of sober-minded questions that must be posed and honestly answered, before any determination can be made. Based on the labyrinth that is the Middle East, this will not be easy or straightforward.

For starters, Just War theory is predicated on the divine mandate of government to punish evil doers and praise those who do right (1 Peter 2:14). Romans 13:4 echoes the same sovereign sentiment when government is authorized “to bear the sword” and serve as a “terror” to evil which “carries out God’s wrath on wrong doing.” In a post-fall world this sometimes necessitates the use of deadly force, though this should never be taken lightly. In short, a nation has divine sanction and a moral obligation to defend itself from enemies both foreign and domestic. But this should never be done devoid of sober-minded assessment and vigorous deliberation.

So how does this apply to the situation in Syria, where over 100,000 Syrians have died? In accordance with Just War theory, a series of tough, penetrating, thought provoking questions must be answered and debated objectively before the first bullet is ever jacked into the chamber. The following is but a sampling of such an inquiry: 

1. Is this war really just? : Those contemplating war must first entertain the real reasons they are marching Johnny off to war. In the case of Syria and Bashar Assad, President Obama views intervention as a humanitarian effort for freedom fighting, democracy loving rebels. All of this is lashed to the US assertion that Assad is guilty of using chemical weapons against his own people. To date it is not known whether the chemical strike was by al-Qaeda backed rebels or Assad, as both are known to have access to chemical agents. There is a great degree of ambiguity surrounding this.  As the old saying goes “Truth is the first casualty of war.” 

As magnanimous a gesture as a humanitarian war might sound, there is little in the US Constitution to commend such action on humanitarian grounds.  Syria in no way serves as an existential threat to the national security of the US, which would be a reason for US action. After all, where does one draw the line where inhumanities are concerned? What about the 100,000 Syrians killed prior to the chemical strike? Over 5 million people have died in the eastern Congo in the last 18 years of civil war, but no one is calling for a US response. Why? 

From the USA’s vantage point, it is not yet clear punitive action is entirely justified in Syria. 

2. Has a competent authority sanctioned war based on the most reliable intelligence (Romans 13:1)? : President Obama has yet to go to congress to seek approval for a military strike. Given the unpopularity of such a war by the American people (70% are against it) it is doubtful congress would approve military intervention. But Obama can still invoke executive privilege, as he often does, and do an end-run around congress, especially if this is the “unbelievably small” attack Secretary of State Kerry said it would be. 

Should President Obama act unilaterally on his own, and it goes horribly wrong, his presidency would be in peril. Thus, by-passing congress would be an unwise move.  In 2008 those who voted for Obama did so on the basis of ending wars, not starting them. Apparently this has slipped his mind. 

3. Is it clear that the actions of the enemy are morally wrong, while a response, in turn, is morally justified (Romans 13:3)? : While Assad is a brute and a beast responsible for 100,000 deaths, it is just as certain that the al-Qaeda backed rebels — many of whom are from surrounding Islamic states — are just as reprehensible as they callously slaughter Syrian Christians and Kurds with impunity.  The jihadist fuelled al-Qaeda mercenaries are currently operating under a fatwa that allows them to rape non-Sunni women. In one tragic instance a 15 old Syrian Christian girl, named Mariam, was raped 15 times in 15 days by 15 different men before being executed.These are the same forces President Obama is currently supplying with arms and supplies.

The real question here is which side is more immoral? It would appear to be a coin toss. Make no mistake, democracy and freedom are not on the menu regardless of which side one references. 

4. What is the intention of going to war — is it to protect and promote righteousness and justice (Proverbs 21:2)? : Recent history indicates that the West, and the US particularly, think that western–style democracy can easily be exported to the Middle East. This is an egregiously  na├»ve assumption which think-tank scholar, Bruce Thornton, calls the “fetishizing of democracy”. What the West hasn’t figured out yet is that Islam, when in the majority, is wholly immune to our notions of democracy and freedom.  The so-called “Arab Spring” is about a resurgence of Sharia law attended by a swelling jihadism, not freedom and democracy. There is an innate incompatibility between Sharia and democracy, something the West has been very slow to learn. 

While promoting democracy and freedom abroad sounds a noble cause, it should be apparent by now that the Middle East, save Israel, is constitutionally  incapable of implementing these concepts as the West understands them.

5. Have all other options for resolution been exhausted (Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:8)? : Truthfully, there are not any good options in this complex situation.  Historian, Victor Davis Hansen, summed it up best: “We are planning to do all kinds of things by not doing anything.” His point is that there aren’t any appealing options, only a long list of bad ones to include doing nothing.

6. What is the probability of success (Luke 14:31)? : A limited US strike would leave everything in suspended animation with any number of undesirable variables possible. US provocation could see Russia and Iran enter the fray on behalf of Assad, with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia forced to aid the Sunni rebels more than at present. Iran, in response, could taunt Israel while soliciting Hezbollah and Hamas to the same. In such a scenario Lebanon would no doubt get swept up in the rapids of violence and senseless killing of an ever escalating conflagration. Of course doing nothing might send a telegraph to others in the region that it is alright to use WMDs. 

Even if Assad were eliminated, what then? Who will take his place? A jihadist desiring to implement Sharia? Will that really be an improvement over the status quo? Those desiring a more secular government would surely revolt and plunge the country back into a second round of civil war. Toppling Assad will only create a dangerous power vacuum, much like that seen in both Egypt and Libya. In other words, a US victory is highly improbable unless the action is long term. 

7. Will the good achieved through US military intervention outweigh the negative consequences of war (Romans 12:21; 13:4)? : In view of the aforementioned, probably not. If the recent history of US foreign policy in the Middle East is anything to go by, the US should quit while they are behind. In 1979 Jimmy Carter supported the overthrow of the Shah of Iran who was summarily replaced by the theocratic ayatollahs, who are now knocking on the door of nuclear capabilities — something that is probably more of threat than Syria. Iraq’s tenuous “democracy” is in serious doubt, while Afghanistan is hanging by a slender thread. In the aftermath of the eternal dispatchment of Mummar Qaddafi, Libya is anything but stable as they experience a rising tide of jihadism, which has now spilled over into northern Mali. Then there is Egypt. The West applauded the sacking of strongman Hosni Mubarak even though present instability is the order of the day. In the meantime Coptic Christians watch their churches being burned down to the ground, their women raped, some killed, and others persecuted to varying degrees. This hardly sounds like the work of those thirsty for democracy and hungry for freedom. 

Christian journalist Cal Thomas well concludes, “What makes anyone think bombing Damascus is going to bring positive change?”  He is right.

 Even though there is a deal in the making regarding Assad’s surrender of WMDs, it remains to be seen if this permanently diffuses the situation. For any real progress to be made, the rebels would need to surrender their WMDs as well. The unvarnished truth of this situation is that in all likelihood there will not be a positive outcome in the near future. The battle will rage on with or without Assad, regardless of what the US does or does not do. 

But is there anything Christians can tangibly do to help in this tragedy? Here are but four suggestions:

·      We need to inform ourselves about Islam and the Middle East, so we can pray more intelligently about the situation. Likewise we must pray for those, like President Obama, to make sound decisions based on bi-partisan advice. 

·     We need to daily pray for the growing number of refugees who are fleeing the bloodshed and daily persecution with nothing other than the clothes on their backs. 

·     Pursue supporting reputable aid agencies involved in the humanitarian efforts to the disenfranchised, displaced, and homeless in Syria. Pray that God would rise up some truly Christian relief workers who take more than food, clothing, and shelter to the refugees, as they also reach out with grace of the glorious gospel! 

·     Finally, while most of us cannot go as missionaries to evangelize in an Islamic country, God has surrounded us with pockets of Islam that still need to be reached with the gospel of Christ. Let us pray for and support Christ-centered ministries seeking to reach local Muslims. Even better, let us count the cost and reach out ourselves to Muslims we know!

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