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September 2, 2013

Washington and War

by John Carr

"Washington and War" blog post at America online

Washington is facing a decision it didn’t want, a choice fraught with moral peril, global consequence, human costs and political implications. President Obama stunned the Capitol by deciding to do what he had said presidents should do: require Congress to act before the nation commits military forces.

The President seems trapped by his own statements and conscience, the moral and “red” line crossed when a dictator gasses his own people. He is restrained by his past statements about the imperatives of international support and Congressional approval. He seems haunted by his deep reservations about the use of force and experience in trying to end wars that have no clear purpose or conclusion. As his staff gathered for a final session, expecting a decision to authorize military action, the President went for a long walk with a trusted aid and came back and said “not yet, we will go to Congress” for a debate and decision on the wisdom of committing US forces to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians. Caught…

The Congress having insisted the President consult them seems stunned the President did what they asked and what Senator Obama had called for. As of this writing, they are not sufficiently engaged to return from their month long recess. They prefer to complain about lack of consultation than to debate and decide on what should be done. They will take up this matter of national war and peace when their vacations and town halls are over on September 9. Inspiring…

The Republicans are in disarray with McCain neo-con wing saying: Too little too late. We told you so. It won’t work, but we ought to do it. The Paul libertarian wing saying: no national interest at stake, we’re not the world’s policeman, it costs too much and we have needs at home. The leadership…Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell say we “welcome” the decision to involve Congress (“you blinked”) and we will take it up when we get back in town and we will get back to you on what the nation should do. Divided…

The Democrats are all over the place, caught between supporting the President and their resistance to the use of force. If President Bush had proposed hitting Assad for using chemical weapons, the opposition would likely have been lead by Senators Kerry and Obama. Nancy Pelosi is for it. Corey Booker opposes it. Hillary Clinton is silent so far. The President can’t lose, but they don’t want to vote for it. Confusing…

Military leaders prepare for action and warn of unintended consequences. They bear the burden and costs of our recent unwise wars. They know better it is easier to start wars, than end them. What is the objective? The exit strategy? The costs? Sobering…

The International Community seems paralyzed. Appalled by the breach of this fundamental global prohibition, the United Nations seems powerless to do anything. Inspectors will tell us chemical weapons were used, but not who used them. A Security Council that should act decisively is tragically paralyzed by a Russian veto. Dysfunctional…

Catholic leaders offer strong and appropriate words of warning against the use of force. Pope Francis has forcefully condemned the use of chemical weapons made an urgent and fervent appeal for prayer, fasting and dialogue for peace , warning “war begets war, violence begets violence.” The leaders of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops call for “the path of dialogue and negotiation” as “the only option to put an end to the conflict and to the violence.” They rightly point out war often leaves the innocent and the world worse off , referring to the “inevitable havoc and pain and suffering and deaths” that come with military action. Faithful…

Ethicists (including here at America) use traditional just war moral criteria to raise serious ethical questions on just cause, authority, last resort and probability of success. Most, but not all, suggest military action cannot be morally justified under current circumstances. Useful…

Like many others, I am left with more questions than answers. I welcome the needed words of restraint from Pope Francis and our bishops and the warnings of moral theologians. I will join in the Holy Father’s time of prayer and fasting for peace next Saturday. What is the goal? The end game? The human costs? The unintended consequences? The implications of near unilateral action? However, what does Catholic moral teaching offer when a desperate dictator uses the chemical weapons against the innocent and the international community is unable to act? What happened to the “duty to intervene” to protect the innocent? Dialogue with whom? What are the moral and human costs of inaction when the global prohibition against chemical weapons is blatantly violated?

Why are our options so limited? Nothing or military strikes? What do we have a CIA for if not to act in such situations? Why did we wait so long to consider assisting the rebels as their number grew more hostile to religious pluralism and democratic values? Why is the United States so isolated in the world that we may need to act almost alone? Who will pay the costs of military action? Whose lives are at risk? Are we able to deal with the unintended consequences of action …or inaction?

My sense is that whether we are united or not, whether it is justified or not, President Obama has decided to punish Assad and his regime for violating the fundamental prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It is small comfort that he seems almost as reluctant as I am to undertake this action. However, the President will do all he can to persuade the Congress and the rest of us that this action is necessary. And I suspect he will pray that this terrible choice is the right one.

We all should pray as well…and participate in this unexpected, but necessary debate on what is the right thing for our nation to do as we watch children die from gasses sent into their homes by a desperate dictator. What is right, wise and necessary?

John Carr is the founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and is Washington correspondent for America magazine.

This blog post originally appeared in America Online.