This week the President expressed his desire for military intervention in Syria, subject to Congress’ approval. Many have asked variations of the question, “is this a good idea?”; but the question that seems mostly unaddressed is more basic: “Is this idea just?”
The concept of “the just war” was developed by the church (and others) over a period of several centuries. It acknowledges both the desire for peace and the reality of human aggression. And it seeks to determine when it is right and just in engage in war, and when it is not.
But it is not only Christians who should ask this question. Immoral societal actions corrupt and corrode that society. And certainly most of us would not want our country engaged in killing (and perhaps being killed) if we were not convinced it was just. To be civilized means more than seeking to uphold justice, but it cannot mean less.
The just war doctrine lists several criteria for evaluating a proposed war (and make no mistake, cruise missiles and strategic bombing are still acts of war). For a war to be justified, it needs to follow all of these guidelines, to the extent mandated by common sense. They are these:
- War should be the last resort, after all other non-violent options are exhausted.
- The war can only be conducted by a proper authority; vigilante justice is a contradiction in terms.
- The war must be for a just cause. This is usually defined as self-defense, or for the protection of other innocent lives. The damage the war seeks to prevent must be “lasting, grave and certain.” Material, financial and power gains are excluded.
- The war must have a probability of success. It is immoral to waste lives on a futile or hopeless cause.
- The war must be fought in order to establish peace; that is, the peace after the war must be better than whatever peace existed before the war.
- Related to the above, the use of war must not produce evils and disorders greater than the evil it seeks to eliminate.
- The violence of the war must be proportional to injury it seeks to redress.
- The plans and weapons of war must discriminate between combatants and civilians. Civilians are never a permissible target of war, and every effort should be employed to avoid killing them.
In my opinion, the military action proposed in Syria does not, at this point, meet the criteria of a just war. These are my reasons.
First, I don’t believe all non-military options have been exhausted. We have not sought to work with the U. N. or with our allies to seek economic sanctions, technology sanctions, or other disincentives to chemical attacks. I am not saying these would work. I am saying they have not been tried.
Second, related to the third criterion, I am not yet certain that the Syrian government is the perpetuator of the attack. I think it is probable, but has not yet been proven. The U. S. government cannot, after the last war, just say, “trust us.”
Third, I am not convinced the attacks would bring about a better peace, or avoid more evils than it eliminated. If the action is strong enough to serve as a legitimate deterrent to further chemical warfare, it would also be strong enough to weaken the Assad regime and (relatively) strengthen the rebels who oppose it. But some rather hard-core Islamic factions make up this rebellion. As one of the writers at The Atlantic put it, “we would be serving as Al Qaeda’s air force”. If the Assad regime is destroyed, there is a distinct possibility that the new Syria could become a sponsor of terrorism; the new government almost certainly be less tolerant of Syria’s Christian minority. In addition, military action forceful enough to make a difference also risks escalating the conflict to other countries. The Assad regime has allies both in the middle east, as well as outside it (especially Russia). If we have learned anything over the past 50 years of U. S. intervention, it is that wars are much easier to plunge into than to pull out of.
For these reasons, military action at this time would be unjust. This is why both the Pope and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East have asked the U. S. not to intervene at this time. The question about whether (apart from its justice) it would also be a good idea in a practical sense, I leave to others to argue.