Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
They Said It:
WHITE founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships . . .
King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don Juan of Austria is armed upon the deck.) . . .
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial; and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk . . .
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Upon which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade . . .
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
“Lepanto,” G. K. Chesterton, 1915.
POPE FRANCIS AND THE “AMERICAN WAR” IN SYRIA.
As you may or may not have heard, some 100,000 people attended a four-hour peace vigil at St. Peter’s Square last Saturday during which Pope Francis asked the men and women gathered there to pray that the Western powers – namely the United States – would not enter into another war. Specifically, he said this: “I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: Violence and war are never the way to peace!”
Now we will readily agree that this message of peace was a bright spot on an otherwise dreary week. Indeed, knowing that the Pope and countless others, including the American Bishops and leaders from other Christian denominations, are praying for peace is reassuring. Moreover, the vigil was in many ways timely, given that this week marks the twelfth anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center and the first anniversary of the slaughter of Americans at the consulate in Benghazi.
Nevertheless, we have to admit to a little confusion. The Pope, his Greek Orthodox counterpart, and tens of thousands of others are engaged in a peace vigil that the Vatican has declared is the first of its kind ever held. Fine. But why now? The Syrian civil war is well into its third year. And mindless violence in the Middle East is now into its third millennium. True, the body count in Syria is staggering. But it has not grown any more significantly staggering over the last few weeks. So again, why now? What has motivated the Pope to assert his moral authority on the matter this week, as opposed to, say, some week two years ago?
Obviously, this question is rhetorical, which is to say that it need not be answered, much less asked. Quite apparently, the motivation for the Vatican’s involvement is the looming threat of Western, and especially American, reprisal against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. Time magazine notes that “Pope Francis has written a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 summit that President Obama is attending, urging world leaders to oppose a military intervention in Syria.” The magazine continues:
“To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” the Pope urged. “Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.” . . .
Next Pope Francis took his views on Syria to Twitter. On Monday he tweeted, “War never again! Never again war!” and “How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake.” On Tuesday, he tweeted “We want in our society, torn apart by divisions and conflict, that peace break out!” and “With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons.” Today his social media message was, “With all my strength, I ask each party in the conflict not to close themselves in solely on their own interests. #prayforpeace.”
Ah. We get it. Pope Francis wants to avoid a “military solution” to a longstanding, ongoing, and bloody civil war. And he wants to discourage “military intervention” in a war in which the Iranians, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, the Turks, the Saudis, and Egyptian and Iraqi jihadists have been involved for far longer than he’s been the pontiff.
Now, longtime readers know that we have spent much of the better part of the last two decades defending and even recommending the Vatican’s positions on any of a number of various socio-religious matters that also affect the global political climate: from Pope John Paul II’s defense of liberty and classical liberal economics to his arguments on the importance of suffering; from Pope Benedict’s vindication of faith and reason to Pope Francis’s admonitions to Catholics to remember those less fortunate than themselves. The Church, as we have long argued, is one of the last best hopes for mankind (to borrow a phrase from Lincoln) in a world of postmodern madness and recklessness.
Regular readers will also note that we are not exactly big fans of the current American president and especially of his plans to intervene in Syria. As we have written over the past couple of weeks, Barack Obama’s proposed intervention in Syria is foolish, dangerous, based on criteria other than American interests, and founded on intellectual and moral arguments that are faulty at best and more likely malevolent. Obama is indeed an amateur, but worse yet, he is an amateur who embraces some of the most patently absurd beliefs in geopolitics.
What all of this means, then, is that we find ourselves in the painfully uncomfortable, intellectually problematic, and, we would hope, exceptional position of feeling the need to defend Barack Obama against the Pope. How on God’s green earth did we get to a point in this geopolitical climate where self-respecting, freeborn men would find it necessary to do such a thing? And more importantly, what does it all mean?
As you may have guessed, the thing that bothers us most about the Pope’s decision to involve himself and his flock in the matter of Syria’s civil war is the timing. Given that timing, there can be little doubt that Pope Francis believes that American involvement would constitute a new and heretofore unknown level of violence in the conflict; that somehow America’s presence, however minimal, would make this a “real” war, when it was not quite so “real” before. Moreover, he appears to believe that American involvement would exacerbate the killing; alter the fundamental motivations of the key players; and somehow create an additional, more menacing, and more globally foreboding incentive for wanton destruction of human life.
All of these beliefs/assumptions are wrong. Worse yet, they point to a cognitive disconnect and a presumption about civilizational behavior that the Pope, of all people, should find highly objectionable.
We should note here that this is not exactly the first time that a Pope has called into question the wisdom and the morality of an American intervention in the Middle East. Indeed, John Paul II was very critical of American intervention in Iraq and aggressively opposed George W. Bush’s plans to overthrow Saddam. The New York Times reported the following just over ten-and-a-half years ago:
Pope John Paul II today expressed his strongest opposition yet to a potential war in Iraq, describing it as a “defeat for humanity” and urging world leaders to try to resolve disputes with Iraq through diplomatic means.
“No to war!” the pope said during his annual address to scores of diplomatic emissaries to the Vatican, an exhortation that referred in part to Iraq, a country he mentioned twice.
“War is not always inevitable,” he said. “It is always a defeat for humanity.”
Wondering aloud what to say “of the threat of a war which could strike the people of Iraq,” he added: “War cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option, and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.” . . .
Wilfrid-Guy Licari, the Canadian ambassador to the Holy See, said the pope’s voice would stand out as an especially resonant one. “It is putting extra pressure, because he’s one of the only moral voices left in the world with credibility,” he said.
He added that the pope’s comments reflected the Vatican’s growing worry about, and preoccupation with, the situation in Iraq. In the last month, an increasing number of Vatican officials have raised questions about the morality, necessity and consequences of a war in Iraq.
For some people, John Paul’s opposition to the war in Iraq serves as a reasonable and important precedent for Pope Francis’s denunciation of the proposed action in Syria. Late last week, for example, John L. Allen, a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Register and a senior Vatican analyst for CNN wrote the following:
For anyone who recalls the buildup to the U.S.-led war in Iraq 10 years ago, the Vatican’s reaction in recent days to the prospect of a Western military campaign in Syria can’t help but feel like a remembrance of things past.
Once again, the Vatican has launched a full-court diplomatic press against a potential strike on a Middle Eastern dictatorship, one ostensibly justified by human rights abuses and the threat of nefarious weapons but also clearly calculated to promote regime change. Once again, Vatican spokesmen are warning that such an offensive could trigger a wider regional conflict, promote extremism, and make life worse for minority groups, especially Christians.
The parallel isn’t exact, given that Iraq was a full-fledged ground war while President Barack Obama has pledged there will be no boots on the ground in Syria. Nonetheless, both the sequence of events and even the language being used by the Vatican today provoke a dizzying sense of déjà vu.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is nuts. It’s also trite and glib. Still, it helps to clarify, in part, the cognitive confusion that has caused this particular military question to become so incredibly confounding.
Allen writes that the “The parallel [between Iraq and Syria] isn’t exact. . . .” Well, this much, at least, is true. But then he continues, “given that Iraq was a full-fledged ground war while President Barack Obama has pledged there will be no boots on the ground in Syria.” Uh . . . no. Here’s where the argument begins to fall apart. Sure, the parallel “isn’t exact,” but not because of the scope of the intervention proposed. Rather, it’s not exact because of the preexisting state of the country in which the intervention is to take place, which is to say the state of “war” or “peace.”
In 2003, there was no war (or at least no overt war) extant in Iraq. Today in Syria, by contrast, there is a massive and deadly civil war underway; one which allegedly has produced a documented case of the use of chemical weapons. This is simplifying, of course, but the war in Iraq was, by most accounts, avoidable. The war in Syria is not. It exists independent of American action or inaction. War in Syria is an established fact and has been for 30-some months.
Consider as well the death toll of each war respectively. After nearly a full decade of war in Iraq, which was, admittedly, initiated by the American invasion, most estimates set the total number of deaths at just over 100,000, the majority of which were the result of Arab-on-Arab sectarian fighting.
In Syria, by contrast, after a mere quarter of the length of the Iraq war, there are already over 100,000 dead and more than 1 million displaced. What this means, then, is that the Syrian civil war has been roughly four times as deadly as was the Iraq war. And that, in turn, suggests that the Syrian people would be considerably better off under American occupation than under current conditions. If the goal here is protecting the innocent, then there can be little question that American occupation would be the least of all evils.
We should be careful here not to overstate the point. None of this, in any way, mitigates the sheer inanity of the Obama administration’s plans to interfere in the Syrian war. But that inanity is based on several factors with which the Pope and Catholic doctrine more generally are not concerned, principally the murky relationship between intervention and America’s best interests.
Team Obama has not yet made that argument, and it is unlikely to do so. But just because intervention is not in America’s best interests does not mean that it is also not in the Syrian people’s best interest. It most certainly is – or at least it would be if done seriously and committedly.
Now, as you may know, this past January, with the assent of both the United Nations Security Council and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the French military intervened in the civil war in Mali. The French sent regular troops, special forces, and equipment to aid the Malian government in its war against al-Qaeda-aligned Islamists. The Brits and Canadians also sent equipment, as did several West African nations. The French successfully aided government forces in the recapture of territory and then, in May began withdrawing. Most notably for our purposes today, no one at the Vatican muttered a word about the entire business. Indeed, those Catholic bishops who did comment expressed gratitude for the French “liberation” of the Malian people.
As with John Allen’s bit above, the parallel between Syria and Mali isn’t exact. But it’s a helluva lot closer than the parallel between Syria and Iraq. Indeed, the essential dynamics are very similar. But the respective responses from the Vatican, of course, are not.
Why is this so? In both Mali and Syria, a civil war existed and was an established fact prior to any discussions of Western intervention. In both Mali and Syria, Islamic fanaticism was a large part of the problem and Western interventionism was one of the proposed solutions to this problem. In both Mali and Syria, the lives of many innocents could, at least in theory, be saved by intervention. And unlike the Iraq war, which was criticized by Pope John Paul II, the Malian and Syrian civil wars exist independent of the United States and would continue to exist whether the United States had expressed interest in intervention or not. So what makes Syria so unique, so special, so “war-ish” that it demands an unprecedented peace vigil on the part of the Pope? Why, in short, is the Vatican all riled up about American intervention Syria?
We can’t answer those questions with any degree of certainty, but we can speculate. To wit:
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it strikes us that the Pope actually does believe that somehow American involvement in a war makes it more serious, more “real” than wars without an American presence.
The problem is that there really is no legitimate reason why this should be so. Indeed, as we argued above, in a practical sense, there is far more reason to believe the opposite; that the contemporary American “way of war” is less violent, less bloody, and less risky to civilians than any other manner of war in the history of mankind.
In the absence of any legitimate reason for this focus on the United States as a de facto source of martial illegitimacy, then we must consider, at the very least, the possibility of an illegitimate reason. In this case, given the nature of Western intellectualism, we must consider that the Pope believes, unwittingly most likely, the postmodern contention that the West in general and the United States in particular is, by its very nature, a hostile force, an imperialist behemoth intent on establishing its political and cultural dominion over the entire planet.
As we noted two weeks ago, the streams of postmodernism and its cousin, critical theory, run strong in Western foreign policy circles and have for better than half-a-century. This is to say that the presumption that all of human interaction requires an oppressed party and an oppressor is largely taken for granted on the Left and particularly among Leftist intellectuals in the Third World. It should be noted in this context that the Jesuits – who are considered by many to be the intellectual order of the Catholic Church – have long been preoccupied with Liberation Theology, which is a religiously laced version of the economic expressions of critical theory. It should also be noted that Pope Francis is himself a Third World Jesuit. And though he has explicitly and repeatedly rejected Liberation Theology, it is hardly unimaginable that his world view is, in some genuine way, affected by the oppressor/oppressee model of human interaction.
Whatever the case, the net effect of the Pope’s pronouncements is the impression that the United States and the United States alone determines whether a war is real or not and thus whether steps to end a war are real or not. And this is a patently dangerous perception.
For starters, by avoiding calling a real and genuinely brutal war a war until America becomes involved, Pope Francis has managed to allow the real perpetrators of the wars in the Middle East – and the attendant death and misery – to absolve themselves for the crimes against humanity, and to be likewise absolved by global opinion. In short, by calling out the Americans for global crimes, the Pope permitted the pathologies of the Middle East to remain not only untreated, but undiagnosed as well.
Over the weekend, Pope Francis spoke out on war once more, and, in so doing, tried again to allocate blame for the condition. The Catholic News Service cites his sermon as follows:
Repeating his recent calls for peace in the Middle East, Pope Francis urged Christians to wage a “deeper war” against evil, including the illegal arms trade that he said drives much of the world’s military conflict.
The pope made his remarks Sept. 8, before praying the noon Angelus with a crowd in St. Peter’s Square, where the previous evening he had led a four-hour vigil for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world.
“This war against evil means saying no to fratricidal hatred, and to the lies that it uses; saying no to violence in all its forms; saying no to the proliferation of arms and their sale on the black market,” the pope said.
“There are so many of them!” he said of black market weapons. “And the doubt always remains: This war over there, this other war over there – because there are wars everywhere – is it really a war over problems, or is it a commercial war, to sell these arms on the black market?”
“These are the enemies we must fight, united and coherent, following no other interests but those of peace and the common good,” he said.
This is all well and good, we suppose, and perhaps black market weapons are a real problem. But when the Pope with his attendant moral authority focuses on that problem specifically and blames it for the cause of wars, he does precisely the same as he does when he denies the authenticity of a war until there is American involvement. All of which is to say that he fails to lay blame where it truly belongs, in this case and in most of the other cases in recent memory: with Islam.
Here’s the deal. For more than three decades now, Islam has been at war with the West and at war with itself. The revolution in Iran, the taking of American hostages, the civil war in Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, the first attack on the World Trade Center, the attacks on the synagogue in Buenos Ares, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the attacks of 9/11, the belligerence of the Taliban in the face of the 9/11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan, the slaughter of innocents in Darfur, the Iraq War, the London Tube bombings, the train bombing in Spain, the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt, the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, the Syrian civil war…etc., etc. ad nauseam. ALL are examples of Islam’s war on West or on itself. The common element in all of this is not the United States and it is not black market weapons. The common element is Islam. And when the Pope denies this or avoids saying it, only to blame others instead, he helps ensure that no one will address the real problem, which is undeniably the incapacity of politicized Islam to find a way to integrate into and deal with the civilized world.
Several times this spring, we argued that the West’s “war on terror” will not be over soon, largely because no one in the political classes of the West has the courage and the intelligence to call a spade a spade, which is to say that no one will lay blame where it belongs, that is, with Islam. Unless and until the enemy is named, we argued, he will not be defeated and, moreover, will not be forced to amend his behavior.
And now it turns out that the political leaders of the West are not the only ones who will not name the enemy. It appears – at least from the events of the last week or more – that the religious leaders of the West are also unwilling to take this first step to a resolution of the world’s most serious present woes. This exacerbates the problem and suggests that the end result will be even more bloodshed.
During the infancy of his papacy, Pope Benedict insisted that his responsibilities as Pope included the necessary task of rescuing the cradle of Christianity – i.e. Europe – from a twofold threat, namely the rise of militant Islam and the scourge of “relativism.” We were enthusiastic supporters of this mission from the start, noting that these threats were interconnected and that saving the West from them was the only way to win “the war on terror.” Unfortunately, it seems that no one got that message to Pope Francis.
In a recent essay for Canada’s National Post, the inimitable Mark Steyn explained why the Pope, of all people, should understand the dangers of relativism, i.e. postmodernism/critical theory, and why this understanding among the broader population is critical to the salvation of Western civilization and its foremost religious traditions. To wit:
In 2010, the bestselling atheist Richard Dawkins, in the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post, called the pope “a leering old villain in a frock” perfectly suited to “the evil corrupt organization” and “child-raping institution” that is the Catholic Church. Nobody seemed to mind very much.
Three years later, in a throwaway Tweet, Professor Dawkins observed that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” This time round, the old provocateur managed to get a rise out of folks. Almost every London paper ran at least one story on the “controversy.” The Independent‘s Owen Jones fumed, “How dare you dress your bigotry up as atheism. You are now beyond an embarrassment.” The best-selling author Caitlin Moran sneered, “It’s time someone turned Richard Dawkins off and then on again. Something’s gone weird.” The Daily Telegraph‘s Tom Chivers beseeched him, “Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging.” . . .
It’s factually unarguable: Trinity graduates have amassed 32 Nobel prizes, the entire Muslim world a mere 10. If you remove Yasser Arafat, Mohamed ElBaradei, and the other winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, Islam can claim just four laureates against Trinity’s 31 (the college’s only peace-prize recipient was Austen Chamberlain, brother of Neville). Yet simply to make the observation was enough to have the Guardian compare him to the loonier imams and conclude that “we must consign Dawkins to this very same pile of the irrational and the dishonest.” . . .
What Dawkins is getting at is more fundamental than bombs or burqas. Whatever its virtues, Islam is not a culture of inquiry, of innovation. You can coast for a while on the accumulated inheritance of a pre-Muslim past — as, indeed, much of the Dar al-Islam did in those Middle Ages Dawkins so admires — but it’s not unreasonable to posit that the more Muslim a society becomes the smaller a role Nobel prizes and translated books will play in its future.
Steyn goes on to beat his usual drum, arguing that as the West grows more and more complacent and indeed more and more Muslim, so it grows less and less likely to see the need to maintain such niceties as “free speech and all the other ancient liberties.” He is undoubtedly correct in this. Still, what concerns us more are the causes of the “political correctness” that characterize this complacency, as well as the long-term consequences of acquiescence to the same.
Whatever you call it – postmodernism, relativism, critical theory – it is clear that the reason that Islam is treated with kid gloves in the West is because most members of the intellectual and political classes deem it inappropriate for the oppressors of the West to speak critically of the oppressed of the Third World. The ruling classes of the West have, as we have noted before, bought in entirely to Edward Said’s conception of “Orientalism” and to the consequent belief that the West has dealt unfairly and intolerantly with Islam and thus its representatives have no right to criticize Islam.
Among the effects of the widespread acceptance of this paradigm, as we have also noted before, is the perpetuation of Islam’s war with the West. That is, if the leaders of the West cannot even name their enemy, how then can they be expected to defeat it?
We were, we will admit, unsurprised to hear that Pope Francis had such strong feelings about the proposed American action in Syria. But that’s not to say that we weren’t disappointed.
The best we can hope for at this point is that the Pope was misunderstood, either through his own fault or that of the media, and that he does not, in fact, embrace the beliefs that he appears to embrace given the events of the last week. We would gladly recant our criticism here, if that turns out to be the case.
At the same time, we worry that the Pope was not misunderstood and that he does, in fact, feel that American war-making is somehow different from that of other countries and people. As we said earlier, this would be tragic. Indeed, the additional suffering and bloodshed that would befall both the West and the Middle East if that proves to be the case will be far more than poor, hapless Barack Obama could ever generate in his piddling three days of enforcing his “red line.”
Pray for peace indeed.