Too Big to Fail?

Is Syria's repressive dictatorship really so crucial to Mideast peace and stability that we can't let it fail? The Obama administration still seems to think so.

If you're a bit confused about U.S. President Barack Obama's passivity in the face of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal repression of domestic opposition, don't be. Syria isn't Libya. The Assad regime is just too consequential to risk undermining.

Although the fall of the House of Assad might actually benefit U.S. interests, the president isn't going to encourage it. For realists in the White House, Assad's demise carries more risks than opportunities.

Great powers behave inconsistently -- even hypocritically -- depending on their interests. That's not unusual; it's part of the job description. In fact, in responding to the forces of change and repression loosed throughout the Arab world, flexibility is more important than ideological rigidity.

The last thing America needs is a doctrine or ideological template to govern how it responds to fast-breaking changes in a dozen Arab countries, all of which are strikingly different in their respective circumstances.

That the administration's response often seemed like a giant game of whack-a-mole, with a new problem popping up daily, was inevitable. And so was the variety of U.S. responses. In Bahrain, where the United States had established the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and in Yemen, where counterterrorism is king, interests trumped values. You didn't hear Obama make any "Qaddafi must go"-style speeches directed against Bahrain's ruling Khalifa family or Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The contradictions and anomalies of U.S. foreign policy have also been on stark display in the Obama administration's differing responses to Qaddafi's and Assad's repression of their own people.

Beating up Qaddafi proved doable and necessary to prevent what was viewed as potential atrocities by his forces in Benghazi. Libya had few significant air defense systems and no friends; it was relatively easy to construct a coalition of the (semi-)willing in the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League to oppose the man President Ronald Reagan once dubbed the "mad dog of the Middle East" -- a tin pot and often bizarre dictator who opposed reform and political change. If you wanted to construct a more vulnerable target in a laboratory, you couldn't have done much better.

Syria presents a profoundly different situation. U.S. policy has always been driven by the hope that the Assads would change and the fear of what might replace them if they fell. Three additional realities ensured a U.S. response quite different from the one for Libya.

First, Syria was hard. It's a country with a sophisticated air defense system, chemical and biological weapons, and a great many friends -- including Iran and Hezbollah, which are capable of striking back. Marshaling support at the United Nations, mobilizing NATO, and getting buy-in from the Arab League in the way that made the Libya intervention possible are not in the cards. Some of America's closest friends, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are also not at all sure that Syria without Assad would be better than with him.

Second, for most U.S. presidents -- Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush being the exceptions -- Syria has served as a kind of unholy diplomatic grail. Since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, U.S. policymakers had viewed the Assads as pragmatists capable of facilitating or blocking U.S. policy in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli peace process.

If only the Syrians could be brought around, presidents have believed for generations, life would be so much easier. The United States wasn't alone in this illusion -- the Israelis, Arabs, Europeans, and Russians felt the same way. Like the Wall Street banks, Syria was then, as it is now, judged as simply too big to fail. There was something perversely comforting about having the Assads around.

I had my own fair share of illusions during my government career, but the Assads were never one of them. I could never quite understand my colleagues' fascination with the brutal Syrian regime. To me, Bashar al-Assad was a brutal dictator who wanted to be the Frank Sinatra of the Middle East -- obsessed with doing things his own way to the point that he priced himself out of peace with Israel and a relationship with the United States. It's striking that every other Arab state, with the possible exception of Libya, managed to establish a close relationship with the United States. Not Assad.

Third, Obama's approach toward Syria has been managed by the realists. This stands in contrast with his Libya policy, where liberal interventionists in the administration and neocons outside clamored for action. This group of realists includes the president, who knows his options on Syria aren't great. He's being told that American leverage isn't great and that if he calls for Assad's head and the Syrian despot survives, he'll have lost access to a key player in the region.

And after all, what could he do that would deter a regime in a fight for its life? Pull U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus? Impose a travel ban on Assad and his family? Press the Europeans to freeze Assad's money?

In a world of symbols, these steps may make an important point about American values. However, none of them will make a difference in how events play out in Syria.

Simply put, the Obama administration is worried about creating a worse situation if Assad falls. Take your pick of scary scenarios: civil war, a Sunni fundamentalist takeover, or a new base for al Qaeda.

Of course, there would also be an upside to Assad's demise. A brutal regime would have fallen; Iran would be denied an Arab patron and a critical window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli arena; Hamas would likely drift further into the orbit of Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and Hezbollah -- though hardly defanged in Lebanon -- would lose a critical patron. At this point, however, the administration clearly judges that the risks of U.S. action outweigh the potential benefits.

Bad options, bad outcomes. So, for now, we watch and wait to see where the arc on the Assads is headed -- north or south. But if the Assads do survive, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if Washington at some point resumes a business-as-usual posture with the only surviving repressive Arab dictator that's too big to fail.



Thou Shalt (Sometimes) Kill

Bin Laden's killing has divided Christians. While Americans celebrated, liberal Europeans felt unease -- but they're the ones who may need to take another look at the Bible.

News of Osama bin Laden's death brought people of almost all religious and political persuasions around the world together in a collective sigh of relief. Yet his assassination did as much to expose geopolitical rifts as it did to promote world peace and fellow feeling. America's relations with Pakistan, already strained, have gone from bad to worse; Republicans and Democrats, hardly lacking in excuses to squabble, have revived stale debates about the use of torture in intelligence gathering.

But there was also an unusual suspect among the flashpoints of tension: Though few of America's European allies were sorry to see the al Qaeda mastermind go, they have had mixed feelings about Americans' cheering and chest-pounding -- especially Christians there, who seem ashamed to admit that they worship the same God as America's conservative evangelicals who have taken bin Laden's death as an excuse to sermonize on the nature of eternal damnation.

As soon as the first reports of the assassination trickled out, crowds swarmed in front of the White House shouting "O-B-L, you're in hell!" Yet as more details emerged about the raid in Pakistan, some Christians, particularly those outside the United States, grew uneasy about how a faithful Christian ought to judge the circumstances of bin Laden's death. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, said the murder of an unarmed man by a team of 79 commandos left him with "a very uncomfortable feeling." Writing in the Guardian, British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright accused Washington of "vigilantism," "'justice' only of the crudest sort," and an American exceptionalism that casts Washington's special agents as the "masked hero [who] saves the world." From their perspective, Robert Kagan is right: Americans are warlike, gun-toting, self-appointed "international sheriffs" from Mars, and peace-loving, multilateral Europeans are from Venus.  

Liberal American Christians, for the most part less critical of the mission, have echoed some of these concerns. But their voices are mostly lost in a clamor of hallelujahs and enthusiastic quotation of the more bellicose psalms. As in most things, conservative American evangelicals have not expressed much moral ambivalence over bin Laden's death. Several evangelical intellectuals cautioned against vulgar celebrations in the streets, but most have expressed full confidence in the justice of the assassination. When California megachurch pastor Rick Warren heard the news, he tweeted a verse from the Book of Proverbs: "When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers." "Welcome to hell, bin Laden," said presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. Never mind Jesus's admonitions to love our enemies, or that business about turning the other cheek. "If anyone ever deserved the forfeiture of his life for crimes against humanity, it was Osama bin Laden," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

What disturbs liberal European Christians is their distinct impression that some Americans are not just giving thanks for lives saved, but engaging in the distinctly un-Christian activity of getting even -- and then dancing on their enemy's grave. St. Paul told the Romans to "never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God." Yet President Barack Obama himself stressed the punitive rationale for the assassination: "Justice has been done," he told the world in his late-night address on May 1.

Domestic politics and culture go a long way toward explaining this cleavage in the Christian world. This is an obvious but important point. Conservative evangelicals were hardly the only Americans who cheered bin Laden's death: The natural human desire for revenge is far more tempting in the country that lost over 3,000 lives on 9/11 and has since sacrificed thousands more in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, in the United States, evangelical Christianity has long been intertwined with patriotism and faith in the country's role as a "city on a hill," a beacon of justice to the world -- a messianic self-confidence that has grown louder and more self-righteous with the rise of the Christian right. European Christians' criticisms of the raid in Abbottabad stem as much from their contempt for American triumphalism as from any theological quarrel.

At the same time, theology matters. Conservative evangelicals have a distinct way of interpreting the Bible that sets them apart from their liberal co-believers in the United States and Europe -- not only in their reactions to the murder of bin Laden, but also in their views on other mortal issues, particularly abortion and the death penalty. Liberals often charge that if a Christian is supposed to uphold the sanctity of all human life inside or outside the womb, then the widespread evangelical support for capital punishment -- and jubilation over the death of even such an agent of evil as bin Laden -- is hypocritical. But from the conservative evangelical perspective, these beliefs are perfectly consistent. Jesus may have called upon his disciples to lay down their swords, but he also told them that he had come to fulfill a much less peaceful collection of divine commands, the Old Testament.

Chalk it up to the enduring influence of the Puritans or the desire for clear authority in an untamed wilderness (whether that wilderness is the pioneers' prairies or a 21st-century society wracked by culture wars). By and large, evangelicals are more comfortable with the rules and wrath of Jehovah than are their liberal counterparts in Europe and the United States. And -- contrary to what pro-lifers will tell you -- Jehovah did not say that life is inviolable: He told the Israelites that all life belongs to him, and his will alone is sacred. To believe that life must be preserved at all times -- even when that life has violated God's law -- is to make a golden calf out of human life and commit idolatry. In this line of reasoning, capital punishment merely acknowledges the first commandment -- "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" -- rather than violating the sixth, "Thou shalt not kill," which is better understood as "Thou shalt not kill unjustly." A minority of Christians believe that following Christ requires pacifism, but most evangelicals think that Jesus, history's most obedient son, never contradicted the Old Testament's essential commandments.

In other words, all lives are not equal. To many evangelicals, the lives of an unborn baby and a grown man guilty of mass murder do not deserve the same protection. The first is an innocent, worthy of every sanctuary society can offer. The second is guilty of a crime for which it is beyond human capacity to atone. In a case like bin Laden's, this means that God requires death. Many American evangelicals would say that this is not about revenge, at least not the puny human kind. This is about turning the soul of a mass murderer over to the only authority truly capable of judging his case and meting out punishment. Their theology has led them to a kind of idealism, a preference for the clarity of divine commandment over the messy ambiguities of, say, the International Criminal Court. To evangelicals who interpret their Bible this way, the Navy SEALs' killing of bin Laden was not an exercise in American exceptionalism, but the very opposite: compliance with the law of God, the most universal authority there is.

Not all evangelicals, let alone all Christians, would subscribe to this reading of the Bible -- but it offers a logic of divine justice that informs many conservative American Protestants' perspective on the death of bin Laden and the question of punishment and retribution in general. It appeals to many people, evangelical or otherwise, who lost loved ones at bin Laden's hands. Charles Wolf, a New Yorker whose wife died in the 9/11 attacks, told reporters that bin Laden "is out of this physical realm and God will throw his soul in hell, the depths of hell. And you can be sure of that. There's no court on Earth that could have done what the final judge has done."

Savvier evangelical politicians and intellectuals rarely speak like this. They know that talk of divine commandments and the justice of hell is not a recipe for credibility in mainstream politics, and it tends to rub secular-minded allies the wrong way. Increasingly, American evangelicals have flocked to the language of "just war" theory: the sober rationalizations of jus ad bellum and jus in bello that Saints Ambrose and Augustine first began to work out in the din of fourth-century barbarian invasions. Since then, Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant theologians have developed just war theory into a philosophical edifice that even the most atheistic commentators take seriously -- and evangelicals have found a way to talk about divine justice without invoking the wrath of Jehovah quite so often. "Osama deserved death, and received it in a just war," said Denver Seminary professor Douglas Groothuis. "The act was fully justified by the demands of just war theory, the historic Christian means of moral reasoning that measures the justification for acts of lethal force," concurred Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

However, if European Christians want to know why so few conservative evangelicals share their ambivalence about bin Laden's demise, they might try paging through the Book of Deuteronomy, or perhaps Psalm 69: "Mine adversaries are before thee.... Let their table before them become a snare; And when they are in peace, [let it become] a trap."