The Corner

James Madison Won’t Be on the Ballot in Syria

If Bashar Assad is reelected to a seven-year term in the Syrian elections planned for June or July, “I very much doubt . . . that will put an end to the unbearable suffering of the Syrian people, stop the destruction of the country, and reestablish harmony and mutual confidence in the region,” says Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations’ Syria mediator. He adds that elections would be “incompatible” with the U.N.’s effort to negotiate a transitional interim government, a measure favored by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the most potent faction of which is al-Nusra, a division of al-Qaeda.

Empower the rebels and then what? Expect harmony and mutual confidence in the region to prevail?

Since James Madison’s Party of Religious Freedom won’t be on the ballot, Syria’s Christians won’t be voting for it. They’ll likely break heavily for Assad, “a brutal dictator,” as Mark Movsesian described him in a post at First Things back in September, “but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government. A dictator, as Samuel Tadros wrote recently, can sometimes be bought off. With the Islamists, there’s no chance.”

Throw your lot in with Assad and you get Iran and Hezbollah to boot. Such is realpolitik on the ground in Syria — and in the committee rooms of the U.S. Senate, where last month a delegation of Syrian Christian clergy, who oppose efforts to topple Assad, were treated to a tirade from John McCain. According to reports, he shouted something to the effect that the delegation shouldn’t even be in the room. Then he stormed out of it himself. He returned and sat briefly but — the most telling detail of the entire drama, to my mind — “refused to make eye contact with the participants.”

McCain opposes Assad, Hezbollah, and the Iranian regime. It’s a coherent package. In isolation, that position would be hard to argue against, but it has costs. Who would bear them? First of all, Syria’s Christians. Like Christians across the Middle East, they’re besieged, dwindling, fleeing, and in general scrambling to avoid coercion to choose between martyrdom and a renunciation of their faith.

Here’s a generous interpretation of McCain’s stridency and subsequent sheepishness: He recognizes that U.S. foreign policy doesn’t always align with the wish of Middle Eastern Christians not to get killed, and he’s embarrassed. “A small and shrinking minority, Mideast Christians can do little to advance American interests,” as Movsesian crisply explained. “Besides, American foreign policy elites are quite secular and uncomfortable with religious identity. Seeing Christians as sympathetic victims doesn’t come naturally to them.”

Movsesian offered several reasons for why American Christians don’t care more about the plight of their coreligionists in the Middle East. You should read the whole post — it’s as insightful as it is brief. I would add a couple of brushstrokes to his observation that many American Christians have a prior loyalty to Israel. I share that loyalty; I’m with them. We don’t want to have to choose between Israel and Middle Eastern Christians, although clearly the politics of the region are such that a U.S. foreign policy that helps the one party will sometimes end up hurting the other. The way around this Sophie’s choice is not apparent. Surely a Nobel Peace Prize awaits whoever finds it. Meanwhile, we would do better to acknowledge the dilemma than to talk around it. Speak to it. Admit that we have no good answers to it yet. Look it in the eye. 

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