Syria, Russia, Israel, and American Moral Responsibility

September 15, 2013

I chose not to comment on the Syrian atrocity during the Ten Days of Repentance because my attentions were primarily elsewhere, on the greater themes of the High Holidays and with my congregation. However, I have been thinking about it, and the following are some of those thoughts:

For me the greater issue, beyond the tragedy in Syria itself, is on what moral responsibility the United States bears as the only world superpower. Though the UN does some important work in international relief (i.e. in Jordan today), the Security Council is a dysfunctional body because it demands 100% agreement to do anything, a demagogic principle if ever there was one. That being the case, moral responsibility for such tragedies passes to the United States.

It is distressing that this Syrian crisis is the only world tragedy that seems to garner American interest, given other catastrophes in Darfur, the Congo and Burma. Of course, this is nothing new. American bombers could have destroyed the train tracks leading to Bergen Belsen in WWII, but did not. The US was absent during the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, after chemical weapons use on civilians by Sadaam Hussein in the first Gulf War, and after Hafez Al Assad’s murder of 20,000 civilians in Hama in the 1980s.

I understand the quagmire into which the United States would step if it becomes the world’s policeman, and that gives me pause, but it is painful as a Jew to stand by idly while others bleed (Leviticus 19:16) especially in the wake of our people’s experience in the Shoah when no one came to our people's aid. Given these two opposing impulses, I stand on the side of active American engagement whenever and where ever a serious humanitarian crisis, such as those I listed above, occurs.

I understand American hesitancy to get involved in Syria, because there is no good-guy in the Syrian opposition, and the next dictator is likely to be just as bad as the current one. However, President Obama's “red-line” is a critical one to enforce every time it is crossed, and it needs enforcing now.

Another worry I have is concerning the perceived loss of American credibility relative to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. There are a number of causes behind the weaker perception of America today including the serious damage done by the Bush Administration’s wrong-headed and tragic Iraqi War adventure, current congressional timidity and partisanship, and misjudgments by President Obama. For the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to succeed with a two-state solution resulting, the United States must be engaged actively and, I believe, with muscle. The weaker America appears, the worse that is for the future of a secure democratic and Jewish State of Israel.

Finally, though I understand the international power play in which President Putin is engaged, I do not accept the view that President Obama has somehow sunk the American ship. If the Russian-American agreement on Syrian chemical weapons succeeds in keeping Assad from ever using them again, it is a win-win-win for the United States, Russia, and any future population that could be similarly attacked.

Before Yom Kippur, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (representing 2500 Reform Rabbis world-wide) made the following statement on Syria, with which I agree:

The Central Conference of American Rabbis condemns the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1400 persons, including some 400 children, as a violation of international law and a crime against humanity. As Jews, we are well acquainted with a tyrannical regime’s use of lethal gas to commit mass murder and of the failure of democratic governments to intervene.

The CCAR applauds the President’s decision to respond to the Syrian authorities’ illegal and morally reprehensible conduct and to seek the complete, prompt, and verifiable removal of chemical weapons from Syria by means of diplomacy, if possible, before resorting to the use of military force.

We reaffirm the principle that the use of force should be undertaken with utmost reluctance, only when reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or prove unavailable.

We call on other governments throughout the world to join the effort to ensure that Syria does not commit another such atrocity.

We believe that effective action regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is essential to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction by others and reinforce the credibility of U.S. policy concerning such weapons.

We support the firm and unequivocal determination of the President and Congress to prevent Iran from developing or obtaining nuclear weapons.

We express our deep concern for the State of Israel and its citizens, who have been threatened with retaliation in the event of American military action, and reaffirm the CCAR’s steadfast support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens from all who seek to harm them.

We yearn for the arrival of “the days to come” that Isaiah foresaw, when nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”

We pray that the Jewish New Year, recently begun, will see the dawning of peace for the entire human family.

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