dave ainsworth
san francisco, CA

husband, father,
christian pastor,
human being

If You Were the President, What Would You Do?

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Sometimes, the news can bring you to tears. That happened last week when I read a news article in The New York Times on the increasing violence in Syria. This paragraph took my breath away:

In one video that residents say shows victims in Ras al-Nabeh, the bodies of at least seven children and several adults lie tangled and bloody on a rain-soaked street. A baby girl, naked from the waist down, stares skyward, tiny hands balled into fists. Her round face is unblemished, but her belly is darkened and her legs and feet are charred into black cinders.

It's okay if you cry. I have a beautiful one-year old girl, and I cried too. How can I not? An infant girl was tortured to death.

Stories like this affect us deeply. We can't understand them. What would make a government do this to its people? What victory would justify such terrible cruelty? Is the lust for power so strong that it drowns out the cries of an innocent baby?

Make it Stop

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If you have any heart at all, then you're desperate for this to stop. Maybe this happened once, but now that we know about it, it can never happen again. It must stop. And, in truth, most of us make it stop. We stop it by closing our eyes, by turning off the television or closing our computers. Aren't we powerless to do anything? Why dwell on something we are powerless to change?

There is at least one person in the world who doesn't have the privilege of turning it off. There is at least one person who is obligated to listen to these terrible stories nearly every day. That person is Barack Obama. As the President of the United States, Obama serves the American people by listening to stories from Syria many times each week, not to mention stories of other atrocities, real and potential, from around the world. 

And unlike you and me, Barack Obama can do something about it. He is not powerless. He's the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world. If anyone has the power to do something, he does. And while you and I might sit at home and debate the appropriate use of such power, it's not our decision. It's the President's decision. For us, those discussions are mostly ideological and hypothetical. For him, it's existential and moral.

One wonders what goes through his mind. America is the most powerful nation in the world. Is there nothing we can do for these women and children? Yes, there would be American casualties and cost, but is this not a worthy use of our strength and lives? We can't save this girl's life, but can we save others?

This is the struggle of every sitting President, a personal struggle that results in thousands saved or thousands dead. In the Clinton years, this personal struggle produced both the mass carnage in Rwanda and the mercifully quick war in Bosnia. What will it produce in the Obama years? Already more than seventy thousand have died in Syria, and three and a half million have been forced from their homes. What will Barack Obama do?

But How?

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The news the President receives from Syria is terribly sad. It's also terribly frustrating. There's no clear solution, as is clear from another news article on Syria from last week. Dexter Filkins, in The New Yorker, wrote "The Thin Red Line" about the tremendous difficulty of doing anything about the conflict.

According to Filkins, "The Administration’s response [to Syria] has been characterized by caution, indecision, and reluctance to speak publicly about the subject." Reading the article, it's no wonder. As one of Obama's former aides has said, "All the options are horrible." 

What's the President to do? This is a tough question that cannot be limited to politics. The fact is that most Americans care little about Syria. We turned our televisions off months ago. Recent history has shown that there is very little to gain from American intervention and much to lose. Filkin's reflections on Clinton's intervention record is helpful here: 

In July, 1995, Serbian forces encircled the town of Srebrenica and killed more than seven thousand Bosnian civilians, in an area ostensibly under the protection of U.N. peacekeepers. Within days, Clinton had decided to seek the U.N.’s approval to use force in Bosnia. His motives were mixed. The war had been given extensive television coverage, and Americans were increasingly aware that an atrocity was unfolding in Europe; by then, nearly a hundred thousand civilians had been killed. After the debacle in Srebrenica, the United States would have been obliged to go into Bosnia anyway, in order to pull out the besieged U.N. peacekeepers. The NATO bombing campaign began in August, and in less than two weeks Milosevic sued for peace.
The intervention seemed to offer two lessons. The first was that the United States had become the indispensable nation, at least when it came to stopping a humanitarian disaster of the kind that occurred in Bosnia. “Only the United States can do this kind of enormous operation,” James P. Rubin, a Clinton-era official at the State Department who was involved in deliberations about the Balkans, said. “It’s not that we do it ourselves. It’s that we gather the world together to do it, parcel out the roles, make sure everybody takes certain responsibilities—the Germans do police, the French do reconstruction. If the United States doesn’t do it, then it doesn’t get done.”
The second lesson was that, in terms of domestic politics, there wasn’t much to be gained from intervening in foreign countries, and there was plenty to lose if an intervention went awry. For Gary Bass, a Princeton professor who has written about humanitarian intervention, the remarkable thing about Clinton’s taking action in Bosnia was that he did it at all. Bass’s general rule is that every time a President sends troops to save lives overseas he risks political disaster; if he stays out, even in the face of calamity, there is little downside. Clinton’s reputation suffered when an American helicopter was shot down in Somalia, and eighteen soldiers were killed, but it was undiminished when he stood by during the Rwandan genocide, in which eight hundred thousand people died. In Bosnia, he got little credit for the lives he saved. “The political price is always heavily slanted against intervention when there is no core national-security interest involved,’’ Bass said.

Barack Obama's choice in Syria is similar to Clinton's experience in Bosnia, only far more complicated and dangerous. Bosnia's war was relatively isolated on the world stage. Syria is squarely centered in the Arab and Muslim world, already hot with hatred for America.

Why Read This?

So, we've just illustrated a tremendous problem with no good solution. Is this what blogs are for? Did I just waste my time? Some of you might be thinking, Dave, I didn't need this today. Now I'm just sad and disheartened. Others readers are long gone, believing sad world news unhelpful to them. So why should we read about this stuff?

There are many, many reasons that we should occasionally (regularly?) wade into these difficult waters. I'll give just two.

1. Good politics and effective government can help sometimes, but it can never save. The American people are right to celebrate the political process, but we are fools to place our hope in it. The world is too complicated and too broken to be solved with politics. Often, our over-investment in politics is the result of our failure to understand the depths of the world's problems. The world needs more than America. Americans need more than a good president.

2. All political leaders desperately need your prayers. They face agonizing decisions, ones that have life and death consequences. It's not just about ideology and politics for them. It's about infant girls been burned to death by wicked men. And whatever decisions they make -- even good ones -- will be parsed and criticized, even villianized, for many years. Pray that God would give them wisdom and courage to do what is right.

And pray that Christ would return and put every last one out of his job, obliterating sin and death forever and reigning eternally.

My Brain Made Me Do It

Science Is Not Completely Blind