As Obama Lobbies for Syrian Strike, What Are the "Just War" Rules?


As Obama Lobbies for Syrian Strike, What Are the "Just War" Rules? | Robert Parham, Just War, Syria

While government leaders might not explicitly cite "Just War" when evaluating the use of military force, "Just War" rules often appear in their framing of war-making, Parham observes. (Photo: Amanda Lucidon/White House)
"Just War" is a time-honored, moral tool for critiquing government war-making arguments.

Rooted in Christian tradition, "Just War" provides understandable moral language that extends beyond the bounds of Christianity. And while government leaders might not explicitly cite "Just War" when evaluating the use of military force, "Just War" rules often appear in their framing of war-making.

Take, for example, Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander's response to President Obama's statement of war intent against Syria.

"I'm concerned about the consequences of a military strike in Syria, and what happens with step two, three and four after that," said Alexander. "I will assess whether a military strike would do more harm than good by setting off a chain of consequences that could involve American fighting men and women in another long-term Middle Eastern conflict."

The "Just War" question of proportionality echoed through Alexander's statement – Will war cause more harm than good?

As Obama lobbies for military action – war – against Syria, what are the "Just War" rules?

Here are the rules:

  1. Just Cause. Protecting innocent human life is a just cause. Stopping genocide is a just cause for war. U.S. military intervention in Rwanda to halt genocide would have been a moral use of force, for example. Attacking Syria after its use of chemical weapons – no matter how horrendous – is not necessarily a just cause.
  2. Just Authority. Presidents need congressional authority. Obama is seeking congressional authority, although he has said that he doesn't need congressional authorization. He has dismissed the need for approval from the United Nations Security Council.
  3. Last Resort. Nations must exhaust efforts at resolving a conflict before launching a war.
  4. Just Intent. Economic gain and punishing wrongdoing are wrongful reasons for war. Claiming the need to protect Israel by bombing Syria doesn't qualify either. Restoring U.S. honor after Syria has crossed the "red line" of using chemical weapons hardly passes the test of just intent.
  5. Probability of Success. A just war must have a high chance to achieve its stated purpose. Obama's resolution to Congress said that the objective of a strike is "to deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade the potential for, future uses of chemical weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction. What is the likelihood that that will be achieved?
  6. Proportionality of Cost. For a war to be just, the war must do more good than harm. Does a U.S. strike prolong the civil war, create more refugees and trigger more attacks on the Christian community in the region?
  7. Just Means. Targeting non-combatant civilians is immoral. If non-combatant civilians are killed unintentionally, that is morally tolerable. That is what is called the double effect. Targeting urban areas in the midst of a civil war makes a U.S. strike against Syria problematic.
  8. Clear Announcement. Reasons for war and reconciliation must be spelled out clearly. The U.S. must state clearly why and when Syria will be struck. And what Syria can do to avoid being attacked.

These are high moral hurdles to cross. Yet better to cross them than to rush into war – war is always more costly with more negative unforeseen consequences than projected by government leaders, munitions profiteers and pundits.

By using the arguments of "Just War," Christian leaders make going to war a tough sell. They also fulfill one of their moral duties of offering a prophetic witness. Offering a countercultural witness in a society that hardly blinks about military spending, drone strikes and deadly force is much needed.

Since we live in a highly charged partisan period where everything is seen as political, one might ask if EthicsDaily.com is being partisan – opposing war because Obama is president.

The answer is "no." We have applied these rules consistently. We've been guided by principles, not political loyalties. Review our record:

EthicsDaily.com applied "Just War" rules in October 2002 to President Bush's speech that sought to build support for a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

"Regrettably, he skipped across most of the time-honored principles of just war theory which have been widely considered, especially since before the Persian Gulf War, to evaluate the moral nature of war," read the editorial.

The editorial noted Bush's failure to address the principles of reasonable hope for success, civilian immunity and just cause. It did note that he applied the principle of last resort.

Another editorial in March 2003 noted that Bush claimed that a new regime in Iraq would cause democracy to bloom there and throughout the Middle East. His argument for democracy to justify war bypassed the principle of reasonable hope for success – as history aptly demonstrated.

Other editorials used "Just War" to critique the Iraq war. One read, "Placing the word 'just' before the word 'war' doesn't make war morally just, contrary to the feelings of pro-war American Christians."

These editorials were not well received in many quarters. The standard charge against EthicsDaily.com was that it was partisan – anti-Bush, anti-Republican. Almost never did the criticism address the principles of "Just War."

Fast-forward to President Obama's December 2009 speech justifying the expansion of the war in Afghanistan.

"Obama told the nation last night that his strategy in Afghanistan is to make more war in order to end the war. But he never satisfactorily assured the nation of the probability of such success," read the editorial.

It concluded, "As it stands now, more war to end war is no just war – for there is low probability of success."

A 2011 editorial on Afghanistan was titled, "Bypassing Time-Honored Rules of Just War – Again."

Knowing the "Just War" rules and using them will help Christian leaders think carefully and speak incisively as the debate over Syria intensifies.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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