Nicholas G. Hahn III, editor of Real Clear Religion, seems to be in a kerfluffle over Pope Francis’s “naïve” musings in his September 7 Prayer Vigil for Peace in Syria. All this talk of peace and harmony forced Hahn to react against the Holy Father at First Things. We need Assad’s head on a spike, and the Pope just doesn’t understand:
Evil will always exist in the world. The kind of simplistic peace that it seems Pope Francis is praying for is dangerously naïve. Weigel points us to an admittedly “humbler sort of peace,” what Augustine called a “tranquility of order.” This “peace-as-order” can only be achieved when public authorities defend the security of innocents and punish those who threaten it.
Hahn argues for complete and total regime change for two primary reasons: 1.) Bashar al-Assad’s government represents a strategic national security threat and 2.) he is preying on his own innocent citizens. For both national security reasons and the moral obligation of “charity,” the United States should therefore arm, fund, and support moderate rebel groups to upend Assad’s tyrannical reign.
Apparently, our actions would fall under a “classical reading of the just war tradition,” one which Hahn dedicates one paragraph to, along with an essay by George Weigel from January 2003. That single paragraph focuses on what St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine concluded in their own works on the tradition: that “public authorities are morally obligated to defend their citizens against aggressors.”
You can read the Church’s full teaching on just war here.
The paucity of references to both classical just war thinking and its modern application to the war on terror (Weigel’s justification for the Iraq war doesn’t apply here, as Assad’s actions have no direct link to United States security) reveals the weakness of Hahn’s case.
A simple walkthrough of the main tenets of the theory, easily accessible in a Catholic Catechism, will address the author’s main points.
First, is Assad’s alleged attack on his own people with chemical weapons “lasting, grave, and certain”?
Definitely for over a thousand victims of the attacks. However, there is no smoking gun pointing to Assad, and the rebel groups—seven of nine of which are tied to Islamists—have killed their own share of innocent civilians, Christian bishops, and unarmed Syrian soldiers. “Lasting, grave, and certain” does not apply to effects on the United States.
Hahn quotes pro-intervention lobbyist Elizabeth O’Bagy to rebut this point, but other sources dispute the composition of the rebellion. If the United States wants to actually help Christians in Syria, it should be methodical and rigorous in whom it supports in the region. As the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are the most radical and violent of the groups, it is logical to assume that they will take power as soon as Assad’s absence creates a vacuum.
The second just war criteria requires that “all other means of putting an end [to the conflict] must have shown to be impractical.” Hahn argues that dialogue is a fool’s errand in this case, but today Assad agreed to work with Putin to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons to the international community.
How this will happen is irrelevant. The only fool’s errand is to assume that we have exhausted all alternatives to war. Indeed, the president drew a “red line” before even proposing economic sanctions of any type.
The final two criterion are succinct: “there must be serious prospects of success” and “the use of arms must not produce evils…graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
Hahn primarily rests upon these two criteria to make the case for regime change. He argues that an “unbelievably small” strike is insufficient because it won’t achieve any measurable goal; thus, deposition is the only way to punish Assad for murdering his own people and ensure success.
But what is the goal of deposing the tyrant? How do we succeed in a mission that we’ve barely developed? Hahn neglects this point, which is the one that scares me the most. Libya provides a terrifying example of regime change with no preconceived goal: a failed state attempting to control hundreds of armed militias.
Finally, it is almost guaranteed that our actions in the region will produce unintended evils. Neoconservatives never consider the next ten years after invasion; with the creation of instability and disorder in Syria, what will happen to Christians or other minorities?
Regime change rarely occurs in the Middle East without bloody struggle. I hope Nicholas Hahn considers this next time he decides to attack the Pope.