Re-Up: Just War Theory Tested in Syria

Four years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog analyzing proposed military strikes against Syria.

Back in 2013, ISIS didn’t really exist in Syria yet; the major rebel group was the al-Nusra Front, affiliated with al-Qaeda. The President was still Obama. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had just launched illegal and immoral chemical attacks against his own people, which crossed what President Obama had called a “red line.” The President had already waged an illegal war in Libya, but he had painted himself into a corner on Syria, he did not want to upset negotiations with Iran, and so he decided to submit the question of Syrian war to Congress (which the Constitution requires anyway). Following my blog post, Congress declined the invitation to war, and here we are today.

Thing is, not that much has actually changed in Syria, so my post then holds up pretty well today. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s a short excerpt:

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.

[…However,] 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.

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…

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.

As a legal matter, President Trump is basically in the clear for 60 days, under the War Powers Resolution. But, morally, it is difficult to see, at first blush, how tonight’s actions accord with the Just War Theory.

UPDATE: It is worth noting that, according to reports still coming out, tonight’s missile strikes were not against human targets. NBCNews reports:

The Pentagon said people were not targeted, and there was no immediate word on casualties. U.S. officials told NBC News that aircraft and infrastructure at the site were hit, including the runway and gas fuel pumps.

New York Magazine and Breitbart are both reporting that Russia, and possibly other countries, were notified of the strikes ahead of time, in an attempt to prevent casualties. Neither source is highly credible, but they are on opposite sides, so, if they agree about something, it is likely true.

If there were (thanks to U.S. precautions) no human casualties in this strike, and there is no intent to follow up on the strike with further military action, then tonight’s actions become far more defensible under Just War Theory. The mere destruction of a runway and some gas tanks is a long way from the human carnage that makes war such a horrifying enterprise.

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  • Nick Bieter

    This has been extremely disappointing to me. I know the whole system is begging him to do this and he will get accolades in the press for it. But it is dangerous and irresponsible to get involved. I don’t want another Iraq/Vietnam. I don’t want the Fertile Crescent to be our 21st century Indochina. I had hoped that Trump said enough refreshing things about changing US Foreign Policy to maybe change a little, but alas the whole system is designed to do it. The same system that sucked us into Vietnam and Iraq are poised to do it again. Ugh when will Republicans learn that intervening in a quagmire is even near term political suicide.

  • David

    Here we are a month later, and it seems to me that Trump is avoiding any other escalation in Syria. How do you feel about that?

    Also, are you still with ASP? Because they just disappointed me this morning.

    • BCSWowbagger

      “How do you feel about that?”

      Pleased! Some symbolic material destruction with no further response seems like… dare I say it… a measured but forceful response to the Syrian regime’s crime against humanity.

      I’m still an officer in my state ASP party, but I don’t think this is going the way I’d hoped it would go. It’s just about a year since I posted my original “A NEW PARTY” call to arms, and I think it’s time for me to revisit it… and issue the appropriate mea culpas.

      What particularly disappointed you this week? I don’t pay much attention to the national party or its doings, although I occasionally get in arguments on its Facebook page.

      • David

        The ASP Facebook page was complaining about the new GOP healthcare bill. What particularly frustrated me was that they played the class card, saying this was only going to help the wealthy.

        At this point, it feels like the ASP is nothing more than a Pro-Life Democrat party. And, if that’s really the only significant difference, I see no point in even considering membership.

  • Oscarthe4th

    An intelligent assessment of Trump’s action and just war theory.

    There is one other thing not mentioned here that leaves me leery of supporting further US military intervention in the Middle East, regardless of who’s in office.

    The US is not very good at prolonged interventions. We do not, as a nation, understand distinctly different cultures well enough to intervene in their conflicts, if the outcome requires reshaping the cultures involved.

    This is particularly true when the cultures have strong tribal components.

    That doesn’t mean that we should never do so. As much as I dislike Trump’s presidency, the attack may, in isolation, deter Syria’s leaders further use of poison gas. But for me to support a significant escalation would require a far clearer explanation of our goals and our means than has emerged from this administration.