The ethics of a Syrian military intervention: The experts respond
September 4, 2013
As the Obama administration readies for a probable military strike against Syria, Religion News Service asked a panel of theologians and policy experts whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria in light of the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Would the “Just War” doctrine justify U.S. military action, and what is America’s moral responsibility? Here are their responses, which have been edited for clarity.
Professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School
What possible grounds does the United States have for intervention? The language of the world’s policeman comes up again. You want to know, ‘Who appointed you the world’s policeman?’
You could say the U.S. can justify the intervention because stability is part of our foreign policy in order to maintain ourselves as the premier country in the world. So it’s smart to intervene. But there’s no moral justification.
Of course (nerve) gas is a terrible weapon. You hear echoes of weapons of mass destruction. And with gas you can’t control it in terms of its indiscriminate effects. But again, I just don’t know how intervention fits under “just war” categories. Syria isn’t attacking the United States.
The U.S. ought to ask the Arab League to do something. Near neighbors have more responsibility in these situations. If the U.S. intervenes, we just reinforce the presumption, which is true, that we’re an imperial power.
The language of intervention and no-intervention is meaningless. America has hundreds of military bases around the world. We’ve intervened. The question is what are the limits of American intervention? Right now there doesn’t seem to be any. President Obama is clearly worried about being involved in an intervention in Syria you can’t get out of. I appreciate that. But America is everywhere.
The just war tradition is based on a series of arguments to be tested before using force against another population. Legitimate and competent authorities must logically argue that the use of force will end or limit the suffering of a people and these forceful actions are the last options after all diplomatic, social, political, and economic measures have been exhausted.
Senior fellow, Brookings Institution
In principle, just war theory does justify military intervention to protect innocent human life — as long as the proposed action meets the tests of effectiveness and proportionality. But nations may undertake military action only after every other possible means of ending the bloodshed has been exhausted.
Although we can argue about whether that condition has been met in the case of Syria, prospects for diplomatic progress appear slim, and the Syrian government’s recent use of poison gas against a rebel stronghold probably derailed diplomacy indefinitely. For the Assad regime, there’s no middle ground; if it doesn’t prevail militarily, it will disappear. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if we do nothing, nothing will change, and the slaughter of civilians will continue indefinitely.
If we can act effectively to protect innocent human life, we have an obligation do so — unless the costs to us are prohibitive (and there’s no reason to suppose they must be). We failed that test in Rwanda but met it in the Balkans. We do not know whether the options we now have will prove effective, but that uncertainty does not justify doing nothing.
Senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace
The just war tradition, in religious or secular traditions, emphasizes the principle of proportionality, that is to say that an attack on any population shouldn’t target noncombatants, the environment or natural resources; the attack shouldn’t annihilate the opponent’s military if it is clear they are in a position of surrendering or losing.
“Just war” arguments for a military intervention in Syria need to consider the problem of no action by the international community, which can increase civilian suffering and validate the actions of an abusive government. These discussions need to study the problems of intervening and limiting the force against military institutions and how civilians will be protected in the midst of the intervention and post intervention.
Also, we need to examine, when the intervention is over, how efforts can limit or mitigate sectarian violence and the possibilities of a civil war. We need to ask: Ultimately what new responsibilities do the interveners have in rebuilding, reconstructing and restoring peace in Syrian society?
The Rev. Drew Christiansen
Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College and longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs
My problem is that I don’t see why this kind of chemical attack matters so mightily when 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria already. It seems to me that you’ve had massive attacks on civilians — with the world standing aside — that should have been the reason for intervention. But there’s also a question of proportionality and success, and I think that there are good reasons to think you might make things worse by a military attack.
There’s no objective for success right now. They’d do much better to try to work long-term for support of the elements of the rebellion that the U.S. wants to support, and we should work strenuously to build up the capacity to respond and build up the responsibility to protect (vulnerable populations), which we can’t do now.
I just don’t see why the particular (chemical weapons) attack should justify intervention at this point, especially if it’s just a rap on the knuckles to remind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now if the chemical attacks were to become a pattern there would be good reason to intervene. But for one occasion, it seems to me that it doesn’t weigh up compared to those who should have been protected and haven’t been, and those who still need protection. I just don’t understand. It seems to me you need a strategic objective, which doesn’t exist, and therefore just war norms don’t apply.
Chair of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons and author of “The World Is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good”
As Christians we know precisely and unambiguously what we are for, in Syria as everywhere: peace, justice, and reconciliation. We also stand absolutely in opposition to all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, because they weaponize the tactic of indiscriminate killing, categorically forbidden by every Christian tradition of ethics on war and peace.
This clarity regarding moral ends, however, does not carry an automatic prescription of means to achieve them. This is what complicates our thinking about the American response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The one who takes innocent life, in any situation, calls down the wrath of the Lord upon his or her head. But the United States is not the sword of God. Its response to Assad’s atrocities must be contextualized by prudential wisdom about the extended consequences of different actions. In such matters no “expert” can really know the future.
This is why our moral certitude actually leaves us in a place of profound tension regarding proposals for tactical intervention: We know what is right, but not the course of action to bring about the right. All we have is a set of convictions against which we can weigh a host of imperfect proposals.
Rabbi Michael Broyde
Professor of law and senior fellow, Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion
Jewish traditional just war theory can certainly be used to justify military intervention in Syria both to topple a dictator and to save the lives of those without guilt. But even more needs to be noted. The Jewish tradition avers that it is wrong to stand by while one’s neighbors blood is shed (and while that biblical verse does not directly apply for a variety of technical reasons), its ideals certainly ought to guide us. When the lives of innocent people are at stake, all people should do whatever they can to save those lives, even if this means that the lives of the guilty will be lost.
Of course, if there is any lesson in modern times, it is that the theory of just war in any religious or legal tradition can not only be evaluated based on the theory, but also based on the likelihood of success. A proper application of just war theory can produce a situation in which good people apply just and lawful force to a bad situation and make it much worse, both in theory and in practice. In the real world, just war theory has to actually work, and not just theoretically work. Doing nothing is a moral option when doing anything makes a bad situation worse. Options that bring peace and protect the innocent are to be favored when reasonable people think that they are likely to work in fact.
Andrew J. Bacevich
Professor of international relations at Boston University
From a moral perspective, it appears that observers see killing civilians with chemical weapons as somehow different from killing civilians with conventional weapons. I don’t know why there would be any distinction. Egyptians who are killed are just as dead as the Syrians who were killed, and though it appears that dying of a chemical weapons attack is an awful experience, frankly bleeding to death from a gunshot wound to your chest or stepping on a mine that blows off your leg is equally awful. So anyone who makes an argument that there’s a moral obligation to act has to address that question: Why here and not there?
The second aspect it seems to me is: What do we expect to achieve? Even if there is a moral case for intervention, how does the use of force remedy the situation? It appears to me that this is going to be a very limited attack with a very limited target set. There’s no intention of overthrowing the regime and no intention of limiting the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian Army.
So beyond allowing ourselves to feel virtuous because we have done something in response to a reprehensible act, what has been gained? If indeed the episode in Syria rises to the level where it is different from Egypt and we really are morally obligated to do something, then it ought to be something more than just a gesture. And of course as a practical matter, nobody’s got the appetite to do anything more than make gestures.
This article was reported by Yonat Shimron, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, David Gibson and Lauren Markoe.
- Topics: Syria