Red Lines in Syria

If the Assad regime has used chemical weapons and crossed the red line President Obama warned against, urgent international action is needed. This does not mean the United States should take military action. Instead Washington should work through the United Nations to confirm the evidence and if necessary mobilize diplomatic action against those responsible.

The first task is to get UN inspectors into Syria to verify if chemical weapons have been used, and by whom. The UN Secretary General has assembled a team of experts, but the Assad regime so far has refused the demand for unrestricted access and has denied them entry. The U.S. should support efforts to negotiate terms of reference for the inspection team so that it can enter the country and begin collecting evidence.

It is important to acknowledge that the information available so far is very uneven and limited. No soil samples are available from a physical site. Most of the evidence reportedly comes from tissue and blood samples that have been transmitted by multiple handlers. The ‘chain of custody’ of the detected elements and the identities of those responsible remain unclear.

It is not clear who may have used chemical weapons. Initially the Assad regime claimed that the rebels were responsible for the injuries and deaths that were reported last month. The rebels claim the government is responsible. The amounts of sarin and other toxic agents reportedly used were quite small. Some analysts have suggested that the use of chemical weapons shells may have been inadvertent. These and other questions need to be clarified before any action can be taken.

If the evidence shows that the Syrian government has indeed used these weapons, the Obama administration should work with key allies and members of Security Council to apply pressure on the Assad regime. The goal should be to take diplomatic steps that could lead to the adoption of targeted Security Council sanctions directed at those responsible for the command and control of chemical weapons systems. Hopefully Russia and China could be persuaded to support such measures. This would be a major diplomatic setback for Assad and would isolate and weaken his regime. None of this will be possible without firm evidence of actual chemical weapons use by government forces.

No justification exists for even considering military action. Crossing that dangerous red line would have severe negative consequences. It could involve U.S. forces in another Middle East conflict and perhaps drag us into the deadly Syrian civil war, worsening an already grave security crisis in the region. Bombing strikes would not be sufficient to neutralize Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons, and they could cause explosions that would release the very deadly toxins we seek to contain. The use of force would squander any opportunity to win Russian and Chinese support for UN action and would hand the Assad regime a lifeline of continued diplomatic support.

Multilateral action through the UN offers the best path for determining if the regime has used chemical weapons and if so for mobilizing international pressure against those responsible.

Pacem in Terris: the Vatican’s Call to Peace

I gave a presentation at Villanova University last week on the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII. I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit what is arguably one of the most important statements on peace with justice ever issued by the Vatican, with insights and exhortations that remain relevant today. Here are a few of the document’s highlights.

Rights. Pope John defines peace as an ordered society based on moral principles and rooted in rights, of which the most important is the right to life. John goes beyond the narrow focus on the fetus prevalent today to emphasize what he calls “a worthy standard of living.” Every person “has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life,” including the opportunity to work and earn a just wage (paragraphs 11, 18, 20).

The Common Good. All people and governing authorities have duties to ensure that the means of sustenance are available to all. Unless civil authorities “take suitable action,” inequalities “tend to become more and more widespread.” Governments must therefore develop “essential services,” including “public health,” and see to it “that insurance systems are made available” so that “no person will be without the necessary means to maintain a decent standard of living” (paragraphs 63, 64).

Truth. Pope John calls for the “elimination of racism.” He urges those with power and wealth to “lend mutual assistance” to others. Countries with the greatest levels of development have an “obligation to make a greater contribution to the general development of the people” (paragraphs 86-88).

The Imperative of Disarmament. John notes “with deep sorrow” the “vast outlay of intellectual and economic resources” on armaments, which imposes heavy burdens on the countries affected and deprives other of the “collaboration they need to make economic and social progress.” The encyclical demands that nuclear weapons be banned and that all nations agree on “a fitting program of disarmament” (paragraphs 109, 112).

A Call to Public Action. Pacem in Terris ends with a call for people of good will to “take part in public life” to help others. He identifies “the great tasks of magnanimous men” and women and urges every believer to become a “spark of light,” a “vivifying leaven” to help create a social order founded on truth and justice (paragraphs 163, 164, 167).

It’s a remarkable document that deserves to be read and studied as an enduring guide to public policy and inspiration for personal commitment.

Music for Peace

This past weekend I participated in a pre-concert discussion of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at a performance by the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. At the concert I also accepted a plaque on behalf of the University of Notre Dame for its support of the Symphony. Then I settled into a box seat to listen to a magnificent rendering of Britten’s demanding work under the skilled direction of Maestro Tsung Yeh.

The pre-concert discussion provided an opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of Britten’s masterpiece. The work is a powerful indictment of war. It was commissioned and first performed in 1962 on the occasion of the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, built alongside the ruins of the historic St. Michael’s Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombers in November 1940 during a massive raid that also damaged thousands of homes and killed hundreds of residents.

Britten’s libretto is based on the traditional Latin requiem mass, but it also draws extensively from the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a young British army officer who served in World War I and was killed in action just a week before the armistice was signed in November 1918. Owen wrote vividly realistic and often shocking poems that depicted the true horrors of war. He rejected the propagandistic portrayals of heroic war that were typical of his time (and that are occasionally heard today). His war poetry had enormous influence in the years after World War I and is considered among the finest ever written.

In one of the poems selected by Britten, Owen bleakly recasts the ending of the story of Abraham and Isaac, as the angel of mercy descends to stop Abraham’s sacrifice:

Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not do so
But slew his son
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In choosing Owen’s poetry for his text, Britten memorialized the horrors of both world wars. The Requiem is a tribute to all who were killed and all the great monuments of human creativity like St. Michael’s cathedral that were destroyed in those conflagrations. Britten manages to be respectful of the sacrifices of those who suffered in war while condemning the institution of war itself. His work is an outcry against what Owen called ‘the pity of war,’ a reminder of the destructiveness of modern warfare and its vast toll in lives lost. The Requiem reflects Britten’s deep opposition to war in all its forms, including the threat of nuclear war, which loomed large at the time he was writing this work in the early 1960s.

For the three vocalists in the premier performance, Britten commissioned a tenor from England, a baritone from Germany and a soprano from the Soviet Union. This was a gesture of reconciliation, a statement that all sides suffered in war and could come together through art to voice a common rejection of violence. The enemy is not the people of the other side, he was saying, but the institution of war itself.

Performances of the Requiem are a reminder of the horrors of war but also a plea for peace and reconciliation, for the resolution of jarring disharmonies through the magical beauty of music.