The ethics of a Syrian military intervention

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Speaking about Syria, the president said he hasn't made a final decision about a military strike against Syria. But he says he's considering a limited and narrow action in response to a chemical weapons attack that he says Syria's government carried out last week. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Speaking about Syria, the president said he hasn’t made a final decision about a military strike against Syria. But he says he’s considering a limited and narrow action in response to a chemical weapons attack that he says Syria’s government carried out last week. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

by Yonat Shimron
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON – As the Obama administration readies for a probable military strike against Syria, Religion News Service asked a panel of theologians and policy experts whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria in light of the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Would the “Just War” doctrine justify U.S. military action, and what is America’s moral responsibility? Here are their responses, which have been edited for clarity.

Stanley Hauerwas, Professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School

What possible grounds does the United States have for intervention?

You could say the U.S. can justify the intervention because stability is part of our foreign policy in order to maintain ourselves as the premier country in the world. So it’s smart to intervene. But there’s no moral justification.

The language of intervention and no-intervention is meaningless. America has hundreds of military bases around the world. The question is what are the limits of American intervention? Right now there doesn’t seem to be any. President

Obama is clearly worried about being involved in an intervention in Syria you can’t get out of. I appreciate that. But America is everywhere.

The just war tradition is based on a series of arguments to be tested before using force against another population. Legitimate and competent authorities must logically argue that the use of force will end or limit the suffering of a people and

these forceful actions are the last options after all diplomatic, social, political, and economic measures have been exhausted.

Qamar-ul Huda, Senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace
The just war tradition, in religious or secular traditions, emphasizes the principle of proportionality, that is to say that an attack on any population shouldn’t target noncombatants, the environment or natural resources; the attack shouldn’t annihilate the opponent’s military if it is clear they are in a position of surrendering or losing.

“Just war” arguments for a military intervention in Syria need to consider the problem of no action by the international community, which can increase civilian suffering and validate the actions of an abusive government. These discussions need to study the problems of intervening and limiting the force against military institutions and how civilians will be protected in the midst of the intervention and post intervention.

Also, we need to examine, when the intervention is over, how efforts can limit or mitigate sectarian violence and the possibilities of a civil war. We need to ask: Ultimately what new responsibilities do the interveners have in rebuilding, reconstructing and restoring peace in Syrian society?

The Rev. Drew Christiansen, Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College and longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs
My problem is that I don’t see why this kind of chemical attack matters so mightily when 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria already. It seems to me that you’ve had massive attacks on civilians — with the world standing aside — that should have been the reason for intervention. But there’s also a question of proportionality and success, and I think that there are good reasons to think you might make things worse by a military attack.

There’s no objective for success right now. They’d do much better to try to work long-term for support of the elements of the rebellion that the U.S. wants to support, and we should work strenuously to build up the capacity to respond and build up the responsibility to protect (vulnerable populations), which we can’t do now.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Chair of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons and author of “The World Is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good”
As Christians we know precisely and unambiguously what we are for, in Syria as everywhere: peace, justice, and reconciliation. We also stand absolutely in opposition to all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, because they weaponize the tactic of indiscriminate killing, categorically forbidden by every Christian tradition of ethics on war and peace.

This clarity regarding moral ends, however, does not carry an automatic prescription of means to achieve them. This is what complicates our thinking about the American response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The one who takes innocent life, in any situation, calls down the wrath of the Lord upon his or her head. But the United States is not the sword of God. Its response to Assad’s atrocities must be contextualized by prudential wisdom about the extended consequences of different actions. In such matters no “expert” can really know the future.

This is why our moral certitude actually leaves us in a place of profound tension regarding proposals for tactical intervention: We know what is right, but not the course of action to bring about the right. All we have is a set of convictions against which we can weigh a host of imperfect proposals.

Rabbi Michael Broyde, Professor of law and senior fellow, Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion
Jewish traditional just war theory can certainly be used to justify military intervention in Syria both to topple a dictator and to save the lives of those without guilt. But even more needs to be noted. The Jewish tradition avers that it is wrong to stand by while one’s neighbors blood is shed.
Of course, if there is any lesson in modern times, it is that the theory of just war in any religious or legal tradition can not only be evaluated based on the theory, but also based on the likelihood of success. A proper application of just war theory can produce a situation in which good people apply just and lawful force to a bad situation and make it much worse, both in theory and in practice. In the real world, just war theory has to actually work, and not just theoretically work. Doing nothing is a moral option when doing anything makes a bad situation worse. Options that bring peace and protect the innocent are to be favored when reasonable people think that they are likely to work in fact.