War in the forest

Should the USA pull out of Syria?

President Trump’s decision to relocate approximately 50 U.S. troops within Syria set off a firestorm of outrage and disbelief. I am not particularly interested in the responses of the usual suspects. I am interested, however, in the commentary of fairly well-known professing Christians as they attempt to influence the church with their arguments in favor of war and global do-gooding at the point of a gun.

Nearly any attempt to militarily withdraw from any region of the world is met with immediate condemnation and tales of doom and danger. Rather than accepting this rhetoric, Christians should take a closer look at what is actually happening on the ground in these areas. We need to judicially examine the consequences of U.S. policy rather than allow ourselves to nonchalantly accept high-minded and utopian rhetoric concerning intentions. And we need to do this as Christ-followers first and Americans second. If anyone has trouble making that distinction, what is to follow will make little sense.

Many of the elected representatives and national security professionals who repeatedly call Trump dangerous, unstable, and untrustworthy are the same experts who supported policies in Syria, Iraq, and Libya which armed and funded so-called moderate rebels in the region which turned out to be Al Qaeda. Their expert opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. [To learn more about how “U.S. policy has been largely responsible for having extended al Qaeda’s power across a significant part of Syrian territory,” read more here].

One does not have to be a Trump supporter to agree with the wisdom of reducing the degree of U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and elsewhere. One of Trump’s most popular campaign promises, which he has not fulfilled, was to bring the troops home from needless and costly military engagements. Polling for over a decade has continually demonstrated the desire of the American people to end “forever war.” So why are some Christians arguing in favor of these endless wars?

One Christian and Republican national security professional, Paul D. Miller, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been particularly critical of President Trump’s latest move. He reminded readers of his warning “that Trump was dangerous and couldn’t be trusted to guide our foreign policy.” Miller offered his competing vision for Syria and beyond in a recent Twitter thread.

Miller welcomes the backlash against Trump’s recent move in Syria and hopes it leads to the rebirth of what he calls “internationalism.” According to Miller, Internationalism:

  • recognizes America’s unique role in the world, unique because of our preponderant power and because our claim to embody universal principles of liberty and equality,
  • recognizes that we are the 500 pound gorilla in the room, and we should be mindful of where we step,
  • is a prudent, selfish, and pragmatic grand strategy, because internationalism recognizes that the free world is the outer perimeter of American security, an engine of American prosperity, and a tool of American influence,
  • recognizes that the spread of our ideals is a direct contribution to our security. Other countries that think like us (Europe, Japan, India) tend to recognize the same threats and fight the same battles.

He concludes, “Short version: democracy abroad is good for America. To accept that is to be an internationalist. To reject it is to be a nationalist.”

This is something but it’s not Christian. It’s certainly American but it’s not Christian. All this talk of “the spread of our ideals” such as liberty, equality, and democracy, is predicated upon militarism. It’s spreading so-called liberty at the point of a gun. You will embrace equality or else. We have the power. We are the 500-lb gorilla. We will use this power to make sure you believe as we do so that America will be safe and secure. That might be “good for America” but I’m not sure it is good for the church.

“We,” the church, are trying to love the people who live and work and raise families in these regions. We are trying to plant churches in the Middle East. We want to spread our ideals through the proclamation of the Gospel and good works that look like the fruit of the Spirit. Is “internationalism” consistent with our mission?

Miller is incorrect. For all his criticism of nationalism, his program is straight up nationalism. He may want to cooperate with other countries more than other nationalists but this internationalist cooperation is the 500-lb gorilla ensuring the best interests of the gorilla. When he speaks of “we” and “our” he means Americans. When he calls it “selfish,” we should believe him. This is internationalism in service of American security. American prosperity. American influence. American ideals. His internationalism is just an alternative means of being a good nationalist.

Using American might to forcibly suppress opposition to the spread of American ideals abroad sounds more like fascism than anything that came from Christ. One is hard-pressed to find evidence in Scripture of violence and coercion as the proper means of spreading “our” ideals. That is if “our” means followers of Christ. Again, I am assuming we view ourselves as Christ-followers first and Americans second and we are rejecting the ideals of the second when they conflict with the ideals of the first.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered a more nuanced take during a recent Daily Briefing. The aim of Mohler’s briefings is to show Christians how to bring a biblical worldview to bear upon the major issues of the day. Mohler suggests, “We would like to think that we can look at an international situation of danger and conflict and decide who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, we can defeat the bad guys and encourage the good guys and protect the good guys from the bad guys, but that turns out in many situations to be far more difficult than we might like to think. The biblical worldview helps us to understand this as we understand how the Bible teaches us that sin works, and especially when you’re looking at conflicts that are extremely complicated and multi-sided over time, going back not just a matter of weeks and months, but centuries, even millennia.”

Mohler’s caution and nuance is a welcome contribution. However, his statement, “There is no easy way to understand exactly what America should do, even what is right to do in this situation,” may sound reasonable if we were to isolate the discussion to a dilemma over what to do about the Kurds this week. Yes, “the current situation there in Northern Syria is both infuriating and heartbreaking,” as Mohler says. However, this current situation is but one act in an extremely long, protracted play. It is possible to trace the history of American policy in the region. We can look at the results of these policies. We can see why the once ridiculed concept of “blowback” is now commonly acknowledged. When looking at the situation as a whole, it becomes much easier to understand the right thing to do.

Those who think of themselves as “American first” will have varying opinions on what is right in Syria. But for those whose primary allegiance is to Christ, consider the Great Commission. Really look at what is happening in Syria and the broader region before accepting the opinions of prominent evangelical voices on these matters. Ask, “how does this affect the work of the kingdom of God, the body of Christ in this region, and the mission of the church” before getting wrapped up in the fickle political machinations of the moment. Let’s also look to see if U.S. policy in the Middle East over the past few decades have made matters better or worse, not just for Americans but for the men, women, and children who live in this region. If U.S. policy has made matters worse, then perhaps it is time to do something different. And, for the just war folks, please demonstrate for us how any of this is just.