The Syrian Tragedy
and American Empire
John B. Cobb, Jr.
"For some of us, to be part of a nation that seeks world domination at terrible cost is painful in the extreme."
Other essays in JJB by John Cobb:
Deliver us from Evil, including Our Own
Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street?
American Gun Culture
Beyond American Gun Culture
Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet
Prayer and Planetarity
The Economics of Happiness
Can we find God in Organized Religion?
God and the Sendai Earthquake
Faith and the Stock Market
Whitehead and Relativity
Whitehead and Mind-Brain Relations
Whitehead and Evolutionary Theory
You might also appreciate:
Diary of an Arrested Priest, by Reverend Michael Sniffen
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Process Theology. by Jay McDaniel
One more step in the U.S. /Israeli destruction of the Arab world is painful to watch. The reasons for the tragedy are clear. But I will make a few brief generalizations about the recent history of the region and the present state of the imperial project.
Like most of Africa, this world was organized according to the interests and agreements of European powers during the colonial era. The boundaries do not reflect natural “nationality” based on the self-understanding of the inhabitants. The best that indigenous leaders can do in the post-colonial era is to establish secular governments that maintain unity by force rather than by national feeling. The use of force in suppressing ethnic feeling requires an authoritarian ruler.
This means that all the rulers can easily, and even accurately, be villified. Most of these countries have minorities that welcome outside help in their struggle for independence. Thus most are vulnerable to outside meddling. Yet several of these countries achieved considerable strength. The possession of oil resources gave them economic strength as well. They prized their independence and in some instances asserted it boldly. They became thorns in the side of imperial America.
The United States evaluates countries according to their alliance with or subservience to the American empire. Since some of these countries did not measure up well by these standards, they were characterized as “evil.” In moral terms they were no more evil than the empire and its lackeys. Unless the desire to be independent and united is declared morally evil, their actual ranking in moral terms may be relatively high. But certainly all have acted brutally with those who threaten their unity.
The establishment of a Jewish state in the predominantly Islamic world added another ingredient. A Jewish state could be established only by profound brutality toward the indigenous Arabs. These have not gone away, and their continued presence is a continuing disturbance to Israel. This leads to more and more Zionist policies, and Israel’s responses to Palestinian opposition have been brutal. The Arab world naturally sympathizes with Palestinians and resents their treatment by Israel. This hostility in the vast world surrounding Israel intensifies its efforts to make itself militarily secure. The primary element in this security is Israel’s extraordinary influence on the one global superpower, the United States.
Israel feels more secure when its Arab environment consists in American lackeys or weak states. This jives with the empire’s hatred of all who resist its hegemony. Such resistance is called “terrorism.” Iraq and Libya fell before the imperial juggernaut. They no longer constitute threats to either Israel or the empire. The cost to their people has been very high. Syria remained intact, however. Its destruction became the first order of business of Israel, and therefore also of the United States.
The many Syrians who reasonably regarded the government as treating them unfairly were encouraged to revolt and immediately received aid. But it turned out that the government was stronger than expected. The opposition was not as widespread as had been hoped. Without more direct involvement by the United States the Syrian government seemed likely to succeed.
That “good” and “bad” are defined by relations to Israel and the United States is clearly indicated by the fact that the ultimate “villain,” “Al Qaeda,” is on the side of the revolution. Obviously the American alliance with Al Qaeda is downplayed, but it cannot be denied. We are reminded that Al Qaeda was the creation of the CIA in its efforts to remove Afghanistan from the Soviet orbit.
The United States is frustrated. If it allows the revolution to fail, the world will see the limits of the superpower’s control. If it takes a more active role, any sense that this is a revolution by indigenous people will evaporate. On the other hand American wars in distant places are unpopular at home. Also, there is danger that Syria’s allies will come more actively to her aid. The empire is forced to recognize its limits.
How can we appraise the situation? We who try to follow Jesus are part of the Jewish world. Yet we are heirs of a church that for many centuries persecuted Jews, and this long and terrible history came to a climax in Nazi Germany. In penitence, we supported the Jewish desire for a homeland. Most of us still do. But we, along with many Jews, are caught in a dilemma.
We Christians understand ourselves to be part of the prophetic movement that is Israel’s greatest contribution to humanity. This movement developed in critical tension with the ethnocentrism that also plays a large part in Jewish scriptures. Zionism, almost inevitably, built primarily on this latter tradition, and those of us who hoped that a Jewish state would operate on prophetic values have been keenly disappointed. Israel has been no better than supposedly Christian states.
In the name of the prophetic tradition of Israel, many Jews and we who would follow Jesus, must oppose many of the policies of the Jewish state. Legitimate desires for security do not justify the destruction of Arab states and the killing of millions of people.
The critique of American imperial policy is simpler. Empires claim to be excellent institutions. The Roman Empire boasted the Pax Romana. It did impose peace on groups that might otherwise have fought each other. But at what cost! Among many other things, it crucified the one we follow and long persecuted his followers. Later a “Christian” nation created an empire on which the sun never set and boasted of the Pax Britannica. No doubt it, too, can claim some positive accomplishments. But again the cost in destruction of whole peoples and cultures was enormous. We Americans celebrate our achievement of freedom from this empire.
Given this history it is ironic that many American Christians now support an American Empire that sets out to establish a Pax Americana. If one believes that this is the best possibility for the world, then the immense destruction and suffering that are the result of efforts to establish it may have some justification. But it is deeply counter to the traditional values of the American people, and it is diametrically opposed to those of Jesus. For some of us, to be part of a nation that seeks world domination at terrible cost is painful in the extreme.