Syrian Just War, or Just War in Syria?

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The Syria thing is such a mess that it appears to fit right in. And so let me say just a few things that might indicate why I might say something like that, and to help everyone feel right at home. It is the Middle East, after all.

Traditional just war theory contains two fundamental aspects — the first is jus ad bellum and the second is jus in bello. The first concerns whether it is just to go to war at all, and the second has to do with your conduct in the prosecution of the war. In our technocratic (and bureaucratic) age, questions tend to surround the in bello issues, attracting all our attention. Are precision weapons really that precise? Are surgical strikes surgical? What are our rules of engagement? Not, “should you have killed them?,” but rather, “did you kill them with sarin gas?” And so on.

But the macro question (ad bellum) is obviously the more basic one. What is the point? What is the objective? In this situation, the only military objective that could justify military action would be to remove the Assad regime and to ensure that it is not replaced by something worse. That is not something that can be done with air strikes. That can’t be done with a no-fly zone. It might be able to be done with fifty year occupation and quasi-colonial status, but that’s not on the table. Right?

The foremost principle of war is “objective.” What is the point? What do you want to achieve? If you don’t have an objective, or if you don’t have a reasonable hope of achieving that objective, you don’t meet this ad bellum criterion. And if you don’t have a reason to fight, then you are just killing people for no good reason.

The second matter is a constitutional question. In the Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war. Part of our drift away from constitutional governance has been to substitute the War Powers Act, where Congress votes in a warlike demeanor, without actually declaring anything. On the up side, Congress is still involved, and they are still (kind of) on the record — although it gives members of Congress the weasel option of saying that they voted to authorize the use of force, but that they didn’t think the president would actually use it. But enough about Hillary and Bush.

The drift toward congressional abdication on their responsibility for declarations of war has been inexorable, and so even that anemic War Powers restriction has become too cumbersome. The lords of the earth want to make war when they want to make war, and are quite impatient with petty obstacles. So we are now at the place where congressional leaders are wanting the president to give them the courtesy of some kind of back room briefing, so that they can have that Washington-like sense of importance, but no vote. The president might do this, but only reluctantly, and good luck getting a briefing next time. Those congressional nullities who ask for even this much are made to feel like their trousers are all bagging at the knees and their hands are all swollen — and hence their request comes off like lèse majesté. We are rapidly approaching the time when the president will be able to conduct a regime change war, from the opening salvo to the tanks rolling into somebody else’s capital city, with Congress trying to keep that querulous tone out of their voice as they ask, yet again, for somebody to please give them a private briefing.

Third, we come to the geopolitical question. Is this intervention a matter of national security for the United States? Assad is a punk and thug, and nobody I know thinks differently. But is his punkish and thuggish demeanor a threat to our nation? On a scale of one to ten, I think that regime does at least register as a threat, but we also have to ask, compared to what? What is the alternative? How much of a threat are they? If we conduct air strikes that degrade Assad’s air superiority, in what way does this not make us Al Qaeda’s volunteer air force? The “rebels” that Assad is fighting are not Jeffersonian democrats, right? Well, you say, some of them are good guys and others are bad guys. It’s complicated. But good news. That can-do American technological spirit has developed a cruise missile that will ensure that the bad guys won’t be able to fill up any power vacuum created by any of our cruise missiles. It works by magic.

Fourth, getting a video feed of a gas attack out of Syria is a whole lot easier and cheaper than getting relief into Syria. The optical illusion created by the ease with which we find out about such horrors ought not to make us feel like we can fix things by adjusting the controls here. This isn’t a video game. We have to recognize that some of mankind’s great humanitarian disasters were caused by our humanitarian ventures. The humanitarian reasons given for our bombing of Belgrade — which one astute observer has called the “War of Monica’s Thong” — started right after Clinton was cleared by a Senate vote, and his reputation was in need of a little refurbish, but it turns out the bombing caused way more suffering — (!) — than it relieved. Our record since then — with Afghanistan and Iraq — has not been much better. It turns out that crater creating is a whole lot easier than nation building, and we are in great danger of confounding the two.

And last, when it comes to my prayers, I am wanting to start by asking God for what is best for Syria’s Christians. Of course, we should want what is best for everyone, but historically, that starts with the church. When the church is blessed and protected, the blessings flow outward to others. It is possible that military action on our part could be the means to answer such a prayer, but from where I sit, it sure doesn’t look that way.

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Jill Smith
Jill Smith
8 years ago

My moral theology teacher also said that a just war must always be winnable. Does this take away from the chivalrous ideal of fighting and dying for a lost cause? That wouldn’t apply in this context anyway.

Michael Hutton
8 years ago

I don’t want to be insensitive to the horrible things happening to people. But could someone explain the difference between killing people with a tank and killing people with a gas. Why does a different kind of death make it something we’ve got to do something about? I only ask because if some country waged war on my country, unjustly, and if there was a weapon that killed lots of them to save one of our boys lives, then it seems to matter less to me that others might call it a MWD than that the lives of those in… Read more »

Yuri
8 years ago

“What is the point?” – One of the reasons may be to demonstrate that if the US president has drawn the red line, it will be enforced. Otherwise the credibility of the US will suffer. There are other reasons: Iran, Hezbollah, resurging Russia and its appetite for influence in the Middle East.

Darrell Young
Darrell Young
8 years ago

Yuri, you wan to the US to go and kill a bunch of people for the sake of credibility? And what credibility do you suppose the US currently enjoys anyway? How about the president stop drawing red lines in the sand for starters? And can you name the last military adventure that turned out well?

Tim H.
Tim H.
8 years ago

I’ll stick up for Assad. Remember, everything we know about him we learned from the same people that want us to go to war against him. This should give us pause. I for one am willing to say that he may be good, bad, or indifferent — at this point I simply have no way of knowing.

Jeremy Bunch
Jeremy Bunch
8 years ago

As complicated as the situation is throughout the Middle East, the question as to whether or not our military intervention in Syria would be considered under the pale of “just war” seems simple to answer. You say that you believe that Syria registers as a threat. But I just don’t see any clear or present danger for the U.S. upon which we can start chalking up an ad bellum objective, let alone how we might get that objective accomplished. Obama has virtually said that our action in Syria would basically be to give them a spanking. And he has all… Read more »

BJ
BJ
8 years ago

Just War Theory involves sovereignty and national self-defense. US interests, as defined by…who knows what, is not a just cause for war or violent attack. Attacking Syria would be an act of war and immoral.

Nathanael Strickland
8 years ago

In situations such as this, one of the best questions to ask is “where do the local Christians stand”? Geopolitics in places that most Americans couldn’t even find on a map are complicated and relying on our brothers in Christ who have lived there their entire lives is an excellent measuring stick. And since the Syrian Christians are backing Assad en mass, that’s good enough for me; especially after Bush’s unjust war wiped out the Iraqi church. Those Americans who think they know better than the people on the ground are arrogant fools at best and bloodthirsty, unchristian warmongers at… Read more »

R. Popp
R. Popp
8 years ago

Amen Tim and Nathanael.

Robert
Robert
8 years ago

If we get a real surpise and Congress declares war on Syria, like they are supposed to before going to war, every syrian refugee, immigrant and international student in this country will find their legal status changed to civilian Enemy Alien. They will be subject to arrest, detention and deportation sans trial at the government’s whim. Ludecke v. Watkins

Paul
Paul
8 years ago

You might be encouraged by looking at the debates in the British parliament last night. The MPs primarily asked 2 questions: a. can we achieve anything by attacking Assad? b. post-Iraq do we believe our intelligence services? The majority then answered “no” to both questions. And the prime minister said, “Alright then we’ll stay out of it.”
For the first time this century I’m proud of our parliament.
Some even attempted Latin. Check out:
https://audioboo.fm/boos/1572893-david-davis-at-the-syria-debate
https://audioboo.fm/boos/1569160-tory-mp-adam-holloway-getting-involved-in-syria-would-be-pure-foolishness

Mark B. Hanson
Mark B. Hanson
8 years ago

Michael – Just war theory requires discrimination in weapon usage to spare noncombatants. Poison gas, like a nuclear weapon, is indiscriminate in who it kills. “Collateral damage” is not preventable, it is inevitable.

Jane Dunsworth
Jane Dunsworth
8 years ago

” But could someone explain the difference between killing people with a tank and killing people with a gas. “ Michael, I am not necessarily saying this answer is defensible and I certainly don’t think it justifies our intervention in Syria, but one difference I can think of is that gas is more indiscriminate. If you are using gas, and you are not out in the trenches of WWI, you are almost certainly targeting populations rather than armies. With a tank, you might be in a defined war zone, or you might be mowing people down in Tianmen Square, but… Read more »

Doc B
Doc B
8 years ago

Robert, this government has no whims about deporting anyone. (Except of course NRA and Tea Party members. But no Syrians.)

Besides, if we deported all the Syrians, we’d have to send away the current Heisman Trophy holder, Johnny ‘Autographed’ Football.

Moor
Moor
8 years ago

The British Parliament’s discussion signaled what I think is the fundamental question of our day (and probably every day). Namely, who do we, or whom can we, trust? Our currency says one thing, our officials walk another.

Robert
Robert
8 years ago

Doc, that’s not the way it works. A LEGAL declaration of war changes civil rights law. An FBI Agent will show up and take the immigrant away and freeze their bank accounts and you don’t get a lawyer. It is used as a means of intimidation. That is what happened to the Germans, Italians and the Japanese who were not living on the West Coast, the last time this was done.

Doc B
Doc B
8 years ago

Robert, you don’t understand the pomo mindset. The law is what this administration says it is, not what some paper says it was at one time. (Look at gun laws, immigration law, marijuana laws, ad absurdum if you need examples.)

No FBI agents will show up anywhere they are not told to show up. And they won’t be told to show up at anyone’s door that is a voting democrat. If this administration (and a recent few of them) followed the letter of the law, we wouldn’t be in the handbasket that we are.

Luis Dizon
8 years ago

Hey Doug, I`m just curious to know: What would you consider to be the last war America got involved in that was a just war? Because it seems to me that a lot of the wars America`s been involved in during the past were not just.

JohnM
JohnM
8 years ago

Yuri, Personally I’m past caring about the credibility of the US. Actually, at this point a less influential America strikes me as not altogether a bad thing. The Sunni and Al Qaeda are no more our friends than the Shia and Hezbollah. As for Russia, is the Russian appetite for influence in the Middle East any larger than America’s? Hard to imagine it being so. So I still see no point.

Bash War in Syria
8 years ago

Thе administration knоwѕ Assad dоеѕ nоt nееd Sarin gas tо kill babies. Assad’s victory оvеr thе terrorists iѕ thе RED LINE. So, John Kerry accuses “ Syria оf uѕе оf chemical agents аnd thеn destroyed thе evidence” iѕ LAUGHABLE. Sо Kissinger, раrt оf thе Evil Empire, iѕ telling thе administration tо асt NOW uѕing False Flag Fabrication tо attack Syria tо push Assad’s victory back. Assad Victory iѕ a RED LINE fоr thе WAR CRIMINALS аnd аn poison fоr “the Nеw Middle East”. Balkanization оf Syria iѕ required fоr PARTITION OF SYRIA аnd regional countries intо smaller states tо create… Read more »

jvangeld
jvangeld
8 years ago

Russia’s interest in Syria might be because it wants a bigger influence in the Middle East. But it might also be because one of it’s few remaining foreign naval bases is in Syria. Seriously, our government thinks it is a good idea to bomb a nation which hosts the forces of a nation which we have only been at peace with for twenty years.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_naval_facility_in_Tartus

David C Decker
David C Decker
8 years ago

My Dentist is from Syria. He is Christian. He said the Assad government leaves the Christians alone, they are the doctors, businessmen, professionals who keep the whole nation going. Assad wars against fellow Moslems, not Christians. The rebel forces behead Christians! Why would we even contemplate siding with them. Granted there are no good sides in this fight but there are worse sides to be on. Just stay out of it.