The Syria thing is such a mess that it appears to fit right in. And so let me say just a few things that might indicate why I might say something like that, and to help everyone feel right at home. It is the Middle East, after all.
Traditional just war theory contains two fundamental aspects — the first is jus ad bellum and the second is jus in bello. The first concerns whether it is just to go to war at all, and the second has to do with your conduct in the prosecution of the war. In our technocratic (and bureaucratic) age, questions tend to surround the in bello issues, attracting all our attention. Are precision weapons really that precise? Are surgical strikes surgical? What are our rules of engagement? Not, “should you have killed them?,” but rather, “did you kill them with sarin gas?” And so on.
But the macro question (ad bellum) is obviously the more basic one. What is the point? What is the objective? In this situation, the only military objective that could justify military action would be to remove the Assad regime and to ensure that it is not replaced by something worse. That is not something that can be done with air strikes. That can’t be done with a no-fly zone. It might be able to be done with fifty year occupation and quasi-colonial status, but that’s not on the table. Right?
The foremost principle of war is “objective.” What is the point? What do you want to achieve? If you don’t have an objective, or if you don’t have a reasonable hope of achieving that objective, you don’t meet this ad bellum criterion. And if you don’t have a reason to fight, then you are just killing people for no good reason.
The second matter is a constitutional question. In the Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war. Part of our drift away from constitutional governance has been to substitute the War Powers Act, where Congress votes in a warlike demeanor, without actually declaring anything. On the up side, Congress is still involved, and they are still (kind of) on the record — although it gives members of Congress the weasel option of saying that they voted to authorize the use of force, but that they didn’t think the president would actually use it. But enough about Hillary and Bush.
The drift toward congressional abdication on their responsibility for declarations of war has been inexorable, and so even that anemic War Powers restriction has become too cumbersome. The lords of the earth want to make war when they want to make war, and are quite impatient with petty obstacles. So we are now at the place where congressional leaders are wanting the president to give them the courtesy of some kind of back room briefing, so that they can have that Washington-like sense of importance, but no vote. The president might do this, but only reluctantly, and good luck getting a briefing next time. Those congressional nullities who ask for even this much are made to feel like their trousers are all bagging at the knees and their hands are all swollen — and hence their request comes off like lèse majesté. We are rapidly approaching the time when the president will be able to conduct a regime change war, from the opening salvo to the tanks rolling into somebody else’s capital city, with Congress trying to keep that querulous tone out of their voice as they ask, yet again, for somebody to please give them a private briefing.
Third, we come to the geopolitical question. Is this intervention a matter of national security for the United States? Assad is a punk and thug, and nobody I know thinks differently. But is his punkish and thuggish demeanor a threat to our nation? On a scale of one to ten, I think that regime does at least register as a threat, but we also have to ask, compared to what? What is the alternative? How much of a threat are they? If we conduct air strikes that degrade Assad’s air superiority, in what way does this not make us Al Qaeda’s volunteer air force? The “rebels” that Assad is fighting are not Jeffersonian democrats, right? Well, you say, some of them are good guys and others are bad guys. It’s complicated. But good news. That can-do American technological spirit has developed a cruise missile that will ensure that the bad guys won’t be able to fill up any power vacuum created by any of our cruise missiles. It works by magic.
Fourth, getting a video feed of a gas attack out of Syria is a whole lot easier and cheaper than getting relief into Syria. The optical illusion created by the ease with which we find out about such horrors ought not to make us feel like we can fix things by adjusting the controls here. This isn’t a video game. We have to recognize that some of mankind’s great humanitarian disasters were caused by our humanitarian ventures. The humanitarian reasons given for our bombing of Belgrade — which one astute observer has called the “War of Monica’s Thong” — started right after Clinton was cleared by a Senate vote, and his reputation was in need of a little refurbish, but it turns out the bombing caused way more suffering — (!) — than it relieved. Our record since then — with Afghanistan and Iraq — has not been much better. It turns out that crater creating is a whole lot easier than nation building, and we are in great danger of confounding the two.
And last, when it comes to my prayers, I am wanting to start by asking God for what is best for Syria’s Christians. Of course, we should want what is best for everyone, but historically, that starts with the church. When the church is blessed and protected, the blessings flow outward to others. It is possible that military action on our part could be the means to answer such a prayer, but from where I sit, it sure doesn’t look that way.