The Common Good

Syria Is About People, Not Politics

I have been literally disgusted at how “politics” has dominated the media’s response and coverage of the Syria crisis. Millions of lives are at stake, as is the security of one of the most critical regions of the world. But all many of our media pundits can talk about is how this affects politics — i.e., how this could weaken President Obama’s second term or what this might mean for Obamacare.

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Syrian Refugees sit in the arrival hall after arriving at Hanover Airport on Sept. 11 in Germany. Alexander Koerner/Getty Image

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I heard the same media blathering when I was in London last week when the Syria chemical weapons crisis broke through. “Does the vote in Parliament hurt the Prime Minister and help his opposition?” “Is the Labor Party now up, and the Tory down?”

Who cares?!

It makes us all even more cynical about politics when we see some Republicans, who we know would support military action if it were being proposed by one of their presidents, ardently opposing these strikes because Obama is calling for them. Then we see some Democrats, who always oppose military solutions, supporting this one because their president is in charge. Disgusting. There are massive numbers of human lives involved here, plus a real danger of war engulfing the region and spreading out with weapons of mass destruction present — yet all we can talk about is politics?

So let’s have some honest talk for a change.

First, I believe it is very good news that so many people in America and the rest of the world have now turned away from military solutions. It’s due to more than “war fatigue,” but the growing realization that the tactics of war (and more bombing is always an act of war), are just not working. Pope Francis was one of the first to denounce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, but also one of the first to speak out against military strikes, reminding us that “violence begets violence.” That is not a sound bite or a generic religious response; it articulates our very recent experiences with ineffective military solutions to terrorism and brutal dictators.

It breaks my heart every time I see the pain of our countless veterans who have lost their limbs — or hear the grief from the families of those thousands who have lost their lives — and juxtapose that with the results of our military solutions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The blame for that clearly does not go to the brave men and women who have sacrificed so much, but to the generals who push and run war, the politicians who keep voting for it, and the profitable war business of the “military-industrial complex” that former general and President Dwight Eisenhower warned us against.

Just yesterday I was with my dear friend Walter Jones, a conservative Republican Congressman from North Carolina, who now calls his vote to support the war in Iraq “a sin.” Walter says he and his colleagues sent young people to die because of the “lies” they were told. Why don’t more members of Congress have the courage to say that now?

“Violence begets violence” is both a factual analysis and the moral judgment of failed military strategies that lead to more destruction and loss of life. Modern warfare makes it easier to kill from a distance without “boots on the ground,” but when we respond to violence with more violence, the cycle of retribution grows. 

Second, we now have a possible alternative to more war in response to Assad’s moral atrocities. On the eve of potential American military strikes against Assad’s regime, a fresh diplomatic alternative emerged — some would say, unintentionally — that could remove chemical weapons from this brutal dictator’s arsenal and put them under international control. And now the world holds its breath, hoping that this new initiative might work.

As we learned from Secretary of State John Kerry’s offhand remark about Assad turning over chemical weapons, there are often other diplomatic solutions to the problems that war claims to solve — but how can governments encourage creative problem solving? And how can the rest of us challenge them to do so? It’s time for a broader vision and bolder thinking when it comes to resolving crises.

What does it look like to “wage peace?”

The immediate crisis in Syria provides an opportunity to rethink our response to conflict. Other alternatives are possible and many have been proven to be very effective when prioritizing international relationships and working together:

  • responding to crisis early,
  • identifying risks,
  • promoting preventive actions,
  • using diplomacy,
  • strategically deploying development aid,
  • building resilient societies by strengthening civil institutions,
  • providing security assistance, and
  • helping countries and the international community to protect people early on.

Experts in conflict resolution and humanitarian aid agree that that investing in crisis prevention in the form of aid and development is more cost-effective than allowing conflicts to escalate. Research tells us that investing early to prevent conflicts from escalating is, on average, 60 times more cost-effective than intervening after the fact. But, according to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the world spends just $1 on conflict prevention for every $1,885 it spends on military budgets. That is a habit of war more than the proven effectiveness of war — a habit we need to break.

How can we find deeper and more effective responses to conflicts and humanitarian crises like Syria, Rwanda, and North and South Sudan? There were many points in the past when we could have acted to save lives, instead of ignoring them for so long that the options for became more and more limited.

The civil war in Syria, for example, is a conflict based on ethnic/religious conflict, which often pit bad actors against bad actors, quickly involve civilians caught in the crossfire, and clearly will not be easily resolved by cruise missiles. Understanding those conflicts and employing the tools of conflict resolution is much more likely to be effective than old and simplistic habits of military actions.

Third, conflicts are rooted in our failures to resolve fundamental issues of justice, fairness, and human dignity — and there are few places in the world where those issues are more unresolved than the Middle East. Zbigniew Brzezinski is the only commentator I’ve heard remind us that there will be no solutions to any single crisis in the Middle East without the “big” solutions in the whole region, including our ongoing crisis with Iran and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those are very wise words. And, as we just remembered the 12th anniversary of 9/11, it is time to find the courage to ask how U.S. historical policies and practices in the Middle East have helped to fuel and actually further the extremism that has grown in the Middle East and now threatens the whole world.

It’s time to admit that more missiles and more war not only are poor solutions — but they often only further the recruitment of terrorism. Addressing terrorism, by groups or by heads of state as in Syria, requires broader and more creative strategies.

Thousands of years ago, the apostle Paul advised Christians to feed their enemies, to “heap burning coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20). What would happen if we surprised our enemies by investing in education, particularly for women and girls, technology, infrastructure, and principled economic development in the Middle East?

A growing number of religious leaders agree with the necessity of a determined moral response to the Assad regime in Syria, but we have raised deep questions about the moral and unintended practical consequences of military strikes and the risks of escalating war, especially for more innocent civilians and suffering people. Therefore, we applaud the president’s call to pursue the new international opportunity to remove Assad’s chemical weapons and postpone the threat of military action.

As religious leaders, we are called to peacemaking — not just peace loving — which requires harder and more imaginative work than always falling into old habits of military solutions. Our priorities will be to mobilize global support for the millions of vulnerable Syrian refugees and more millions in jeopardy inside Syria, and to do the hard work of conflict resolution that could lead to the necessary political solution in Syria.

Many in the faith community will now pray and act, believing that there is still time to avoid a military option that could lead to even more bloodshed.

We fundamentally reject the assumption that not initiating military action is doing nothing.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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