Just War Theory Tested in Syria

The Just War Theory is a framework for analyzing the exceptional cases where war — that is, the deliberate use of potentially deadly force on a mass scale against a legitimate, sovereign authority — might possibly be something other than a heinous crime and a mortal sin.  Though originally Catholic, it has held up surprisingly well under other popular theological and ethical frameworks, so, today, just about everyone who agrees that the State has any ethical obligations in foreign policy at all subscribes to some flavor of Just War Theory.  (Most of the rest are total pacifists, which is an interesting position worth exploring on another day.)

On Friday, President Obama announced that he would defer to Congress’s judgement on whether or not to open hostilities in Syria, as the Constitution expressly requires.  He has thus placed the question before the People’s elected representatives, and thus before the People themselves.  Since Friday, various right-wing scoundrels, such as the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal (who have never met a war they didn’t want), have decried the President’s deference.  They have called it weakness and partisan triangulation — which it may well be — and insisted that the plain text of the Constitution be ignored — which it must never be.  We hope that all observers will bear this in mind the next time the Journal pretends to the mantle of constitutional originalism and the rule of law.

President Obama has, for whatever reason, placed a very serious question before us, and it befits us to examine it through the Just War framework: In order to constrain the use of chemical weapons, to protect civilian life, and to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, should the United States Congress vote to authorize warfare against the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad?

The Just War framework has five generally accepted components, which may be phrased as questions.  If the answer to all five questions is “yes,” then a war is at least a morally legitimate option.  If the answer to any of the five questions is “no,” then a war is unjust.  This isn’t a school exam where 60% gets your war a passing grade; it is a tool establishing the absolute minimum conditions under which the horror of mass, state-directed violence against another sovereign state can even be considered as an option:

1. Is the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain?

Your answer to this question may depend on how you view the proposed Syrian intervention.

If you think the most important fact of the Syrian situation is Bashar al-Assad’s indiscriminate killing of civilians, by both conventional and chemical means, then yes: the evil he has inflicted on his own nation is lasting, grave, and certain.  As an ally to all free and innocent human beings, the United States could surely intervene on their behalf, as long as all other conditions were met.

If, on the other hand, your chief interest in the Syrian disaster is Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons, you run into a difficulty: the world’s intelligence agencies assert “high confidence” that the regime is responsible for the apparent chemical weapons attacks that have dotted the country.  However, no one has been able to assert certainty.  There is no “smoking gun.”  Assad himself continues to vigorously deny using them, as do his Russian allies.  In years past, we might reasonably have taken the strong, collective, and united judgement of our intelligence agencies as certain fact.  But the Iraq intelligence failures have buried that notion forever.

The use of chemical weapons is a grave offense against human dignity; they are essentially different from conventional weapons in that their sole purpose and operation is not to maim, not to degrade, not to impoverish, but to deliberately and directly kill human beings en masse, in a manner even more excruciating than most of the painful ways war can kill you, with no reasonable possibility of discrimination.  Their use by any power violates international norms and treaties that protect all of us from a nightmare world where they can (and therefore must) be routinely used in the course of warfare.  A single use of them has consequences both lasting and grave.  However, based on the evidence available to the public, it is difficult to conclude that Syrian chemical weapons use is “certain” enough for the United States to act on it as a cause for war.

Let us assume for the sake of keeping the question alive, however, that the U.S. has more intelligence than it is letting on, and that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is, in fact, “certain” enough to satisfy the Just War Theory’s strict dictates.  There is reason to doubt that this is true, but, since we are not Congressmen, we probably will not know one war or another until after the dust settles how much the U.S. really “knows” about Syria’s chemical weapons use.

2. Have all other means of putting an end to the evil been shown to be impractical or ineffective?

The Syrian Civil War has raged for two years.  Assad’s regime has so far flatly refused to accept an ouster.  The rebels (quite reasonably) will not accept anything less, both out of a sense of justice and out of a well-grounded fear for their lives under a revived Assad.  Negotiation, the favored solution of Syrian Christian bishops, therefore appears to be impossible.  A vast array of sanctions aimed at disabling the regime have proven ineffective, as Syria’s allies, especially Russia, have refused to join them.  At this point in the conflict, sanctions may do more harm than good.

Pope Francis has set September 7th as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria.  I hope you will all join me in participating in it.  It appears to be the only “other means” not yet adequately tried.

Otherwise, we may confidently answer, “Yes,” to this question.

3. Is the war being considered and enacted by the legitimate authorities most responsible for the common good?

The difference between a “war” and “mob violence” is a narrow one.  Just War theorists agree that only an institution that is governed by law (not by the arbitrary whims of individuals), submissive to the principles of justice, and dedicated to the common good can competently assess these criteria and undertake a just war.  Otherwise, it’s just vigilante violence.  Here in the United States, we came perilously close to violating this principle.  President Obama seriously considered attacking Syria without the Congressional authorization that the Constitution, our highest law, demands.  Some, like the Wall Street Journal, still want him to do that.  This would have been a substitution of President Obama’s private judgement for the judgement of the duly-constituted government of the United States.  It would have been a lawless, vigilante action.

Fortunately, he has not done that in Syria.  We’ll leave the discussion over Libya for another day.  If Congress votes “yes” to the Syrian intervention, we can confidently answer “yes” to this prong of the Just War theory.

4. Are there serious prospects of success?

This is where we run into real difficulties.  If our goal is to protect civilians or defend against the promotion and proliferation of chemical weapons, then the limited strikes proposed so far appear woefully inadequate to accomplishing those ends.  President Obama’s plan of action amounts to a slap on Bashar al-Assad’s wrist in order to preserve American credibility, not to actually accomplish any of the war-worthy goals discussed above.  (The quote of the war so far is the Administration’s unofficial line that our attack will be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.”)  It is just possible that such limited strikes could salvage U.S. credibility and put the scare into Iran.  However, neither of these political realities are justifications for war, because they do not represent “injuries lasting, grave, and certain” that are “inflicted by the aggressor.”  If anything, our credibility loss over Syria has been self-inflicted.  There is no realistic prospect that limited strikes expressly designed not to topple the regime could possibly achieve the laudable ends of protecting civilians or preventing chemical weapons proliferation.  On the contrary: limited strikes are more likely to increase both.

Now, there remain some possibilities.  Stanley Kurtz yesterday examined our options if our goal is simply to prevent chemical weapons proliferation.  They boiled down to this: we must invade Syria with no less than 70,000 American or allied ground troops.

On the other hand, if our main interest is protecting the innocent, we don’t have to actually commit troops — but we would have to end the war, one way or another.  That means choosing a side, arming the side, and supporting the side through the war.  After the war, still in the name of saving civilian lives, we would have the responsibility of trying to keep “our” side in control during the post-war chaos, similar to the way we (successfully) propped up the democratic Iraqi government after 2003 and the way we (completely failed) to shepherd the Free Libyan government after our intervention there early this year.  This is essentially Sen. McCain’s plan.

Both these plans appear to have serious prospects of success.  That’s good.  Both plans would also shock and appall a war-weary America, rendering them politically impossible.  But let’s put political analysis aside until we’ve finished with the moral analysis.

It remains possible that President Obama will put forward a plan that somehow holds serious prospects of accomplishing our legitimate, justifiable military goals in Syria, yet involves a very low commitment of troops and resources.  It also remains possible that President Obama will present a balanced budget to Congress next year.  It also remains possible that Equestria is a real place where little girls and bronies can go and play for one day out of every century, just like Brigadoon.  Suffice to say I’m skeptical of all three possibilities… but, if it does turn out that we can reasonably expect to genuinely curtail Bashar al-Assad’s murderous murdering or chemical warfare while still limiting our involvement to cruise missiles and distant air support, that would make this analysis much more favorable to Syrian intervention.

Until that ponyriffic plan materializes, though, I must conclude that the “limited strikes” option fails the Just War test.  The other, more massive interventions, on the other hand, remain a possibility.  At least until the next question.

5.  Is the evil that will be eliminated graver than the evils and disorders that will be produced by resorting to the force of arms?

The rebels who are leading the war against Bashar al-Assad are, by any standard, bad guys.  The most important rebel groups have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda.  We are currently in a state of declared war against al-Qaeda and their allies; intervening on their behalf would be declaring war on people who have not attacked the United States in defense of people who have.  And the rebels are not the tender loving “moderate” Islamists that Sen. McCain and the “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” caucus would have you believe.  Just as in Egypt, these “moderates” are murdering Christians and blasphemers.  Although sometimes condemned by rebel authorities, those same authorities are apparently unable or unwilling to stop them — just as in Egypt.  As the veil of Sharia law descends over rebel-controlled Syria, just as it has in all the failed states of the aborted Arab Spring, there is little reason to believe that the al-Nusra Front’s vision for Syria — an Islamic caliphate hostile to America — won’t come true if Assad falls.  And this would be an caliphate armed with Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

Now, Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and a few others believe that, by arming the “secular” rebels — especially those of the al-Nusra’s rival rebel organization, the Free Syrian Front — we can assert enough influence over the resulting Syrian government that the nation will embrace pluralism, liberty, and the American Way.  If al-Nusra is ascendant today, we can change that in a heartbeat by giving the Free Syrian Front the weapons it needs to win some big victories!

Ten years ago, I was naive enough to believe that was true.  After experimenting with this model in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Egypt, however, it’s difficult to stick with it.  First, the Free Syrian Front is not an army of secular liberty-loving democrats like the Continental Army, Germany’s Social Democratic Party, or even the Irish Republican Army.  The Free Syrian Front is less aggressively Islamist than al-Qaeda, but just because they don’t summarily execute blaspheming children doesn’t mean they don’t generally support the execution of apostates.  We tried working with the “moderates” in Egypt, but, within a few months of taking power, they were ready to enact an Islamic dictatorship with popular backing.  Second, U.S. influence has simply not turned out to be the trump card we all hoped it would be.  Our government ultimately survived in Iraq not so much because we armed them as because we served as their armed forces for several years with 150,000 of our men on the line.  Our governments in Egypt, Libya, and Afghanistan, where we didn’t have enough boots on the ground, have either collapsed or become deeply corrupt and (in many ways) anti-democratic institutions.  We can nudge an organization in the right direction with our ideals, our dollars, and our guns, but winning back Syria’s opposition from al-Qaeda will (probably) take a lot more than a nudge.

Trading a ruthless secular dictatorship for a ruthless sharia dictatorship would be a loss for Syria.  There is very good reason to believe, then, that the fall of Assad would, in fact, produce greater evils than leaving him in power.

Perhaps not.  Perhaps Sens. McCain and Graham are right.  Perhaps taking out Assad with heavy American support would correct more evils than it would create.  It is certainly possible.  But it is not enough to say that a superior outcome in Syria is possible.  It is not even enough to say that it’s likely.  We are talking about taking up arms in order to maim and probably kill hundreds if not thousands of human beings.  Many of those human beings will likely be non-combatants who are killed accidentally.  Even to contemplate it is horrifying; to actually do it without assurance that it’s the least-bad option left would be a grievous sin under any ethical system. 

We have posed a question of proportionality: would intervening in Syria cure more evils than it creates?  In order to consider intervention just, we must be able to reply, not with tepid “maybes” or “probablies,” but with a single, confident, “Yes!”  I gave that answer before the Iraq War, which I expected would be a “cakewalk.”  I can’t give that answer today.  The Just War Theory wisely requires that, where doubts exist, we err on the side of non-violence.

(Over at the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto grapples with the same question today.  His generally excellent analysis is similar to mine — you should read it — but, in the end, he rejects the principle that we must err on the side of non-violence.  I don’t think that move is justified, but it allows him to ultimately conclude that we should strike Syria, even though he admits that we are very unlikely to achieve our objectives there.)

So here is the Catch-22 of Syrian intervention: limited strikes are probably limited enough to meet the Just War theory’s proportionality requirement, but they are nevertheless unjust because they do not have “serious prospects of success.”  A broader involvement, wherein we directly armed the rebels, or invaded the country ourselves, bringing about the fall of Assad, would very definitely have “serious prospects of success”… but it would nevertheless be unjust, because there is a substantial probability that such involvement would provoke greater evils than it would solve.

There is a just cause here.  Those who argue that U.S. security interests are not at stake are, in my opinion, mistaken — and irrelevantly mistaken, since U.S. security interests do not need to be at stake in order for there to be a just cause for at least limited forms of military involvement.  But, at this time, there appears to be no way to act on that just cause without making things even worse.  War proponents reply that failing to act in Syria carries very dangerous consequences, as well — perhaps even more dangerous than the potential repercussions of intervention.  They are correct.  Failing to punish Bashar al-Assad for his chemical weapons use sets a terrible precedent, and there is good reason to fear that other petty tyrants will see our inaction here and draw the conclusion that they can use sarin without facing serious repercussions.  Failing to intervene in Syria condemns thousands more to die in the ongoing war there.  Failing to secure Syria’s chemical weapons caches risks having them fall into al-Qaeda’s hands, with terrible consequences throughout the world.  These are all real risks, and I’m dismayed to see that many Americans opposed to intervention do not acknowledge them, and are instead satisfied to smugly condemn the whole idea as petty adventurism.

The trouble is that effective intervention, wherein we ensure Assad’s downfall by invasion or massive rebel armament, is also extremely risky, and, indeed, many of the risks are precisely the same.  We must err, then, on the side of non-intervention.  There are still projects humanitarian and pseudo-military we can undertake to minimize the damage in Syria.  (Incidentally, I think Rep. Ed Royce’s suggestion that we bribe Syrian military officers to keep chemical weapons stockpiles secure and dormant is very worthy of consideration.)

Thus, if I were a Congressman, I would classify myself a “lean no.”  If President Obama and his generals present an effective plan that threads the needle between effectively achieving our objectives while reasonably assuaging my fears of American-induced catastrophe in Syria, I could be persuaded to vote yes to war, despite the overwhelming unpopularity of it.  However, I do not think President Obama’s administration — or any presidential administration, for that matter — is capable of producing such a plan.  That’s no fault of Pres. Obama’s; I just don’t think there could be such a plan, given the current conditions in Syria.

There.  That was a bit heavy.  Here’s a funny YouTube video you can watch to clear your palate.  It’s about slavery!

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