Republicans are banging the drums of war loudly about Syria. Would our intervention in that horrible civil conflict be a just war … or just a war to make President Obama be at war? (More)

Syria: A Just War or Just a War?

Military action in Syria is now a matter of U.S. credibility, John Bolton wrote Sunday in the Wall Street Journal. If President Obama does not act, then “his latest act of foreign-policy fecklessness provides further proof to Iran, North Korea and other adversaries, whether states or terrorists, that he is not a force to be reckoned with.”

Jeffrey Goldberg made the same credibility argument last week in Bloomberg News, but he added a moral imperative:

There are no good choices – good outcomes in Syria are impossible to imagine. But if it is proved to a certainty that Assad is trying to kill his people with chemical weapons, then Obama may have no choice but to act, not only because he has put the country’s credibility on the line (Iran and North Korea are undoubtedly watching closely), but also because the alternative – allowing human beings to be murdered by a monstrous regime using the world’s most devilish weapons, when he has the power to stop it – is not a moral option for a moral man.

Goldberg implied that a U.S. intervention in Syria would be a just war. But is he right, or is Syria just a war – the most immediately available war they can drum up – that Republicans want to hang around President Obama’s neck?

Just War Theory

As we discussed in 2010 during the drumbeat for war in Iran, Just War Theory has a long history. Universities teach entire courses on it. Ethicists and other scholars continue debate its nuances. While its origins are religious and the principals below are from the 2003 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Just War Theory is not exclusively a religious doctrine and these principles stand on their own:

  • The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.
  • All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
  • There must be serious prospects of success.
  • The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Note that “the damage inflicted by the aggressor” cannot be speculative, nor simply restricted access to a desired resource or market. “Force may only be used to correct a grave, public evil, i.e.: aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.” Material gain or sustaining an economy is never a “right intention” for waging war.

Neither, I would argue, is upholding the credibility of foreign policy statements … nor is a president’s personal reputation as a tough leader who follows through on threats.

Indeed, President Obama should treat Republicans’ claims about his reputation among foreign leaders with an entire ocean full of salt. Astonishingly, Republicans are certain the rest of the world sees President Obama as Republicans see him, projecting their own partisan criticisms into the minds of leaders in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere. Bolton goes so far as to claim that world leaders give President Obama no credit for the death of Osama Bin Laden, “since that master stroke was long in the making before Mr. Obama even imagined running for president.”

In other words, Republicans take credit for the Bin Laden operation … so other world leaders must see it that way too.

“Good outcomes in Syria are impossible to imagine”

But the most telling moral argument against Goldberg’s thesis is his own admission that “good outcomes in Syria are impossible to imagine.” In Just War Theory, an unwinnable war is never moral, however noble the cause. The harm to be stopped must exceed the inevitable harm of the war itself. If there is no serious prospect of success, or “success” can only be achieved by laying waste to whole nations, waging war only compounds the injustice.

The rebels in Syria are not solely an indigenous population rising up against a brutal leader. Such people exist, but most of the rebel fighters are outsiders who intend to replace a secular government with an Islamic regime. Syrians are a diverse people, ethnically and religiously, and there is no guarantee a Salafist Sunni regime would be any less brutal to Shia, Sufi, Kurdish, and Christian Syrians.

Even if we helped the rebels topple the Assad regime, we might not make Syrians’ lives better. With so many disparate forces tearing at the fabric of Syria, the fall of Assad might simply shift the current civil war into a new phase, as those forces turned on each other to battle for dominance. We cannot wish away Syria’s centrifugal political whirlwind, and the catastrophe in Iraq exposed the hubris of occupying another nation to impose a representative government.

“We never asked, nor did we encourage”

That may be why not even Israel wants the U.S. to intervene in Syria:

A senior Israeli official said Sunday that Israel was not urging the United States to take military action in Syria, despite intelligence assessments asserting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad recently used chemical weapons in the civil war gripping its country.

The official, Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations, also said that his government saw no comparison between American policy toward Syria and the Obama administration’s announced intention to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capability.

“We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria,” Mr. Steinitz said at a conference in New York sponsored by The Jerusalem Post. “And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.”

Syria and Israel are neighbors, and Syria’s state-of-the-art air defense system was built to resist state-of-the-art Israeli jets. While Israel launched a successful airstrike in Syria in January, that target was a convoy allegedly bringing weapons to Hezbollah fighters for use against Israel.

In other words, Israel believes the Assad regime are arming terrorists to attack Israel … and they still don’t want us to intervene.

Our military meddling in Syria would not be a just war. It would be just a war … pushed by Republicans who want a foreign policy failure to blame on President Obama.

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Happy Tuesday!