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Do Air Strikes in Syria Align with Just War Theory?

Just war theory has long been a means by which people of faith have sought to assess both the morality and wisdom of armed conflict.

EthicsDaily.com has consistently set forth just war theory’s principles when U.S. leaders either contemplated or made a determination to wage war. (Examples are here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

I am a proponent of what Glen Stassen called “just peacemaking.” Yet, as I explained previously, I believe just war theory offers the most realistic means to engage the conversation about war and, ultimately, the most productive avenue to champion just peacemaking.

Given the news of President Trump’s decision to approve air strikes in Syria, it is time again to continue this important moral witness on EthicsDaily.com.

Below are the principles of just war theory, as set forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Consider and use these principles as a means of assessing Trump’s decision on Syria.

  1. Just cause: Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations;
  2. Comparative justice: While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other;
  3. Legitimate authority: Only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war;
  4. Right intention: Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose;
  5. Probability of success: Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;
  6. Proportionality: The overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved;
  7. Last resort: Force may be used only after all peaceful alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.

By way of brief commentary on these principles, which EthicsDaily.com’s late founder, Robert Parham, rightly called “high moral hurdles to cross,” I would make the following observations:

  1. Grave atrocities have taken place in Syria – not least of which is the latest report on the alleged use of chemical weapons. Even apart from this latest attack, it seems clear that “a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations” has occurred.
  2. Innocent civilians have suffered greatly as a result of the protracted conflict, and surrounding nations have been impacted by millions of refugees fleeing. Yet, when assessing the legitimacy of U.S. military action, one must ask if this is the best way to defend the lives still at risk in Syria? Are air strikes (whether by drones or planes) the surest way of avoiding civilian casualties? This is a pressing question given reports of civilian casualties resulting from the U.S. strikes.
  3. The fact that these airstrikes on a foreign power were made without congressional authorization is problematic. Unilateral military action taken by a president from any party is always suspect and unlikely to meet this “hurdle.”
  4. Trump was understandably (and rightly) angered by reports about alleged chemical weapon usage and the significant numbers of innocent children who were killed or maimed. Defending the innocent is always just. Yet, Syrian Catholic leaders have questioned why the U.S. did not wait until investigation into the attacks was completed. In short, the reasons for a military response must be further explained by the administration, as well as the rationale for military intervention in Syria but not other nations where civilians are being killed (such as Nigeria and South Sudan).
  5. What is the ultimate goal of these strikes? What is the probability of success in achieving it? How many strikes will take place? How often? What are the targets? If the goal is, ultimately, “to end terrorism of all kinds and all types,” as the president stated in his announcement of the decision, how likely are these attacks to further that pursuit? Can limited strikes achieve these ends? Can any amount of military engagement accomplish this? The administration might have considered these questions and might have substantive answers to them, but so far the available public statements leaves them unanswered.
  6. The initial strikes have been focused and relatively limited in scale and scope. Yet, it must be asked: Is this approach, which has been called largely symbolic, going to achieve more positive than negative outcomes in the short- and/or long-term?
  7. The president asserted, essentially, that “all peaceful alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted,” in stating, “Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically.” It is true that peacemaking efforts by the U.S. and other nations have proven fruitless so far, but can it legitimately be said that we have reached the point that military action is the “last resort”?

To quote Parham once more, “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.”

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.