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Finding a Just Peace in Syria

The Moral Power of the People

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

While the threat of military force brought Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table, it was the threat of moral force that brought President Obama to that table.  Huge numbers of American voters, and others, shouted a forceful No! to another war, no matter how “moral” and “unbelievably small” it was packaged.  And it was wrapped in all of that.

President Obama had drawn a “red line” in the sand, which he alleged President Assad crossed in using chemical weapons on his own people.  An outraged Obama called it a “heinous act,” and an equally righteous Secretary of State John Kerry condemned it as a “moral obscenity.”  They especially emphasized the gassing of children, their denouncements accompanied by horrible images of dead, dying and convulsing children and adults repeatedly shown on American television news programs.

Thus President Obama decided to take military action against Syria, else America would lose its credibility, leading other nations to “flout international rules.”  And Secretary of State Kerry assured everyone with, “We’re not talking about war.  We’re not going to war . . . We’re talking about –[an] unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” (“Kerry: We’re Talking About An ‘Unbelievably Small’ Effort in Syria,” Real Clear Politics, Sept. 9, 2913)  Having tomahawk cruise missiles reigning down on your heads and homes and neighborhoods is very much “going to war.”

The attempt to make an attack on Syria palatable to the American public took other manipulative forms.  Both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry verbalized self-serving empathy with Americans’  “weariness of war,” stressed a “limited” action with “no boots on the ground,” and repeatedly said that this military intervention would not be a “mistake” like Iraq.

Never mind that President Obama’s  initially planned military strike against Syria, like former president George W. Bush’s pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, ignored—and demeaned—the UN and its chemical weapons inspectors, violating “fundamental international rules.”   Ignore the fact that the Obama administration’s extensive drone warfare has killed countless children and other civilians, and blatantly violates the sovereignty and security of other countries and their citizens.  Pay no attention to the reality that a “limited” military attack, to punish President Assad and “deter” and “degrade” his use of chemical weapons, would kill far more Syrian “women and children and innocent bystanders.”

The Senator Foreign Relations Committee paid no mind to the above realities.  President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry had greased the slide with American exceptionalism and credibility, and the Committee slid down it, voting 10 to 7 in favor of authorizing military force.  Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Committee Chairman, who co-drafted the resolution, said, as reported, “Congress should ‘make sure Assad understands he can’t just wait us out, use chemical weapons, and face no consequences.” (“Senate committee approves Syria attack resolution,” by Gregory Korte, USA TODAY, Sept. 4, 2013)

But the world beyond Congress refused to allow a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to count it out.  The British Parliament already had voted not to join America’s announced military action against Syria—a shocking “red light” for the Obama administration.  The British people said No!, and the British Parliament felt their moral power and listened to them.  Defence Secretary Philip Hammond explained their position: “The Iraq War . . . had ‘poisoned the well’ of public opinion.” (“David Cameron’s plans for military action in Syria shot down in dramatic Commons vote,” by Andrew Grice, The INDEPENDENT, Aug. 30, 2013)

The anti-war power of the British people was a red light that evidently gave President Obama pause.  Two days later he pivoted from his unilateral decision to attack Syria, and made “a second decision” to “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.” (“Transcript: President Obama’s Aug. 31 statement on Syria,” By Washington Post Staff, Aug. 31, 2013)

“The American people’s representatives in Congress” got an earful.  They were deluged with telephone calls and e-mails saying No! to an even “unbelievably small” military intervention in Syria.

An ominous red flag was raised when many Baltimore area constituents of the Congressional Black Congress, strongly supportive of President Obama, refused to empower his “red line” ultimatum.  They were living in the “red,” due in no small measure to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  A Wall Street Journal story reported that “many wondered why he would enter another war when Baltimore’s own problems deserve attention.  That sentiment,” the story continued, “helps explain why Mr. Obama is drawing little backing from the Congressional Black Congress . . . By some accounts, as few as two of 42 voting caucus members have said they would back Mr. Obama on Syria.” (“Key Constituency Is Skeptical of Obama’s Plan,” By Siobhan Hughes, Sept. 9, 22013)

Powerful anti-war handwriting on the wall was especially seen in town hall meetings when “the American people’s representatives in Congress” discussed military intervention in Syria with their constituents.  The moral power of the people was especially felt by Senator John McCain—of all “representatives.”  He is the senator who wanted the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s authorization of force to be more aggressive, i.e., forceful enough to change the balance of power on the ground from the Syrian government to the rebel opposition.  And his amendment to that affect was adopted as part of the Committee’s authorization of force given to President Obama.  Evidently many of McCain’s constituents believed  his stronger warmongering amendment contained echoes of his 2008 Republican presidential candidacy theme song, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”

The headline of a story by pro-Obama news source MSNBC probably sent chills up the President’s spine:  “Arizona voters skewer McCain over Syria.”  The story reveals the moral power of the people, seen especially in the words of a woman who “claim[ed] to have a cousin in Syria killed 10 days ago by the opposition.”  She told Senator McCain that “the answer wasn’t more violence,” and added, “For me to listen to you say there is no good option in Syria—I refuse to believe that.”  She continued, “You can do it by diplomacy and negotiation—not bombs, Sen. McCain.”  She then stressed the hypocrisy of an attack on Syria: “We cannot afford—we cannot afford—to shed more Syrian blood.”  And her final words were shared by many: “We cannot afford to turn Syria into another Iraq or Afghanistan, I beg you.” (by Aliyah Frumin,  HARDBALL with Chris Matthews, msnbc.com, Sept, 6, 2013)

The moral power of the people was also strongly demonstrated when Pope Francis led 100,000 people, in St. Peter’s Square, in “a global day of fasting and prayer for . . . peace in Syria and against any armed intervention.”   A reported “hundreds of thousands of Christians across the globe are joining him.”  He prayed and spoke moral truth to power:  “How many conflicts, how many wars have mocked our history?  . . . Even today,” he continued, “we raise our hand against our brother.”  Without naming it, he then confronted the evil of American exceptionalism: “We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death.”  He named the reality of cause and effect that leads to blowback against America:  “Violence and war lead only to death.”  He then held up the humanizing challenge of The Golden Rule: “Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?” (“Pope Francis Leads Global Prayer Vigil for Syria,” By Elizabeth Dias, Time.com, Sept. 7, 2013)  It would be difficult  now for President Obama to control Pope Francis’s protest by giving him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as George W. Bush did with Pope John Paul II to blunt his original opposition to Bush’s pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. (See Alberts. “Mainstream Religious Leaders in Bushtime,” Counterpunch, Sept. 19, 2005)

Pope Francis’s moral power could not be “degraded.”    Not just appealing to Catholics worldwide, he was quoted as “invit[ing] members of other religions to take part in any way they saw fit in the hope that a wider war could be averted.”   Muslims, including a leader of their community in Italy, Yaha Pallavicini, joined in the Pope’s prayer for peace vigil in St. Peter’s Square.  Christians held services around the globe, including in the United States. (“Pope, in Syria peace appeal, calls for end to spiral of death,” by Philip Pullella, Reuters, baltimoresun.com, Sept. 7, 2013)   And in America, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops joined in the Pope’s call for a “Day of Fasting and Prayer for Peace in Syria.”  The bishops urged Catholics to express their moral power with, “Pope Francis has exhorted ‘the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace.  . . . a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people.’” (www.usccb.org, Sept. 3, 2013)

The moral power of the people is also being demonstrated by various American Christian organizations in their opposition to military intervention in Syria.  As reported, “The advocacy arms of the Presybterian, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran and Catholic churches are among the groups in the United States urging members to contact their representatives in DC to urge a no vote on the resolution next week. (“American’s Christians mobilize against Syria strike ahead of Hill votes,” By Carrie Dann, NBC News, nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com, Sept. 8, 2013)

Seen through was President Obama’s moral manipulation: “If we really want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such unspeakable outrage, then we just acknowledge the costs of doing nothing.” (“Transcript: President Obama’s Aug. 31 statement on Syria, Ibid)  Rochester, New Hampshire Congregational Church pastor Elizabeth Buchakjian-Tweedy shot down this argument in a sermon: “We have found ourselves between a rock and a hard place of a false dichotomy; to do nothing or to replay violence with violence, and death with death.”  (Ibid)

According to Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Dr. Russell Moore, “Even evangelicals who were largely supportive of the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq are hesitant to back action now.” (Ibid)  This writer wonders if the “hesitancy” of some white evangelical Christians is due to the fact that President Obama is black, and not a white, “Jesus changed my heart,” born again-professing Christian, like George W. Bush.   Whether foreign or domestic policy, certain anti-Obama-everything white persons can’t stand seeing a black man living– and ruling– in their White House, and are willing to trash his every policy initiative, no matter how it may affect the country.  This statement is not meant to minimize the moral power of the many white evangelical Christians who now see the criminal folly of the Iraq War.

Another minister made the critical point of “what Christians in Syria want.   . . . And what they’ve told us directly is ‘we want the shooting to stop, we want the violence to stop,’” said “Rev. Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.”  Rev. Parsons then spoke words that should guide any moral effort to intervene on behalf of people: “And I think we need to listen to the people on the ground.” (Ibid)

Many Americans see through the “false dichotomy” of taking military action against the Syrian government or “doing nothing.”  The moral power of the people is seen in anti-war demonstrations across the country, and polls showing large majorities of Americans opposing any military action against Syria.

As opposition against attacking Syria mounted, Russian president Vladimir Putin offered President Obama a way of stepping around his foot-in-the-mouth “red line.”  Secretary of State Kerry inadvertently gave Putin the opportunity when a London reporter asked Kerry if there were any way President Assad could avoid an attack.  “Sure,” Kerry answered,” he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week . . . but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”  To make sure everyone understood that Kerry really did not mean what he said, the State Department made clear that he was “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility of Assad turning over chemical weapons.” (“Kerry: Syrian surrender chemical arms could stop U.S. attack,” By Arshad Mohammed and Andrew Osborn, London, Reuters.com, Sept. 9, 2013)

Secretary of State Kerry’s off-hand remark accidently opened the door to negotiations as Russian and Syria immediately took him up on his offer.   President Obama, in turn, seeing  moral handwritings on many walls, including strong opposition to the use of force from constituents of the ”representatives in Congress,” said Russia and Syria’s response was “a potentially positive development”—and took his place at the negotiating table.   The Senate joined him at the table, putting a hold on the increasingly unsupportable resolution to authorize military force against Syria. (“Obama Calls Russia Offer on Syria Possible ‘Breakthrough,’” By Michael R. Gordon and Steven Lee Meyers, The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2013)

Ironically, Russian president Vladimir Putin, of all political leaders, has been the answer to countless prayers on behalf of the Syrian and American people.  As Noam Chomsky has states, “The Russian plan is a godsend for Obama,” while reminding everyone that Obama’s continuing threat of force, if negotiations fail, “is a crime under international law.” (“Chomsky: Instead of ‘Illegal’ Threat to Syria, U.S. Should Back Chemical Weapons Ban on All Nations,” www.demcracynow.org, Sept. 11, 22013)

President Putin echoes Noam Chomsky’s words in a New York Times editorial, writing, “The United Nations founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus.  The profound wisdom of this,” he continued, “has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades,” but could collapse “if influential nations bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”  He speaks offensive historical truth to American political leaders and their guardian media and “think tank” apologists: “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States . . . relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either for us or against us.’”

Perhaps President Putin’s greatest offense—and most important moral truth—is his criticism of “American exceptionalism.”  He rightly states that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.  There are big countries and small countries,” he stated, “rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy  We are all different,” he concluded, “but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” (A Plea for Caution From Russia, Sept. 12, 22013)

Senator Robert Menendez, who co-authored the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s resolution to authorize force against Syria, was quoted as saying that he read President Putin’s column at dinner, and added, “I have to be honest with you . . . I almost wanted to vomit.” (“Bob Menendez: Putin Op-Ed Almost Made Me Want To Vomit,” By Braden Goyette, The Huffington Post, Sept. 12, 2013) Evidently it is difficult to stomach peacemaking words when one is used to a steady diet of warmongering.

President Putin’s final words are similar to the inclusive statement of Pope Francis, when he said about gay persons, “Who am I to judge.”  The Pope explained this comment: “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality.  . . . I replied with another question: ‘Tell me; when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?  We most always consider the person.”  (“Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion, Birth Control,” By Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, Sept. 20, 2013)

While President Putin says, “We must not forget that God created us equal,” his words are contradicted by his criminalizing of homosexuality in Russia in signing anti-gay bills.  Similarly, Pope Francis can say about gay persons, “Who am I to judge” and imply that “God looks at a gay person . . .  with love.”  Yet he still believes in and upholds the doctrines of the Church, which has a long way to go to unconditionally “endorse” the innate worth and rights of LGBTQ persons.  And those journalists and political pundits who fault President Putin, while remaining silent about the homophobia still rampant in America, are engaging in the willful convenience of selective morality.

Jesus asks a penetrating question of everyone here: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”  He then provides wise counsel for all who seek peace and justice in our world: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7: 3, 5)

Peacemaking begins when people deal with the “logs” and “specks” within themselves and their leaders.  The clarity that results leads to The Golden Rule.  Herein lies the moral power of a president’s words:  “We must not forget that God created us equal.”  And the deeply related words of a pope: “We must always consider the person.”  It is this kind of constant, vigilant moral power of the people that is needed to help guide our leaders to negotiate a just peace in Syria—and beyond.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.  Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care.  His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, ”demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” stated the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling.  It is available on Amazon.com.  His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.