Off to war again. But a just one?

Everyone ready for another war? Ready or not, it appears that we are about to go to war with Syria. Or, as the Washington Post says:

An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country’s civil war, former U.S. officials said Tuesday, warning that history doesn’t bode well for such limited retaliatory interventions.

It’s all happening rather quickly and there are lots of angles to cover — the intelligence situation, the lack of Congressional approval, the political outcomes expected, etc. — but what about the religion angles? Of the many religion angles in this story, one deals with whether this war can be considered “just.” The Huffington Post hosted a piece by Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of International Relations at Catholic University of America who serves on the Core Group for the Department of State’s working group on Religion and Foreign Policy, which notes:

St. Thomas Aquinas never imagined a world in which chemicals could kill thousands of people in a breath, but these old moral codes can still provide guidance in modern warfare. [Just War Theory] is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” JWT holds that even during warfare we are still capable of moral behavior, and still obligated to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between realpolitik, which always allows war, and pacifism, which never allows war.

What are the arguments that bombing Syria is just? What are the debates surrounding whether this would be a just war? Well, I haven’t seen a particularly thorough treatment of the issue, but I did want to highlight a couple of pieces that did a great job introducing some discussions. The first comes from Religion News Service and begins:

WASHINGTON (RNS) 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.

And we get a series of responses from folk such as Stanley Hauerwas, professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, and Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here’s one sample response:

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.

I just don’t see why the particular (chemical weapons) attack should justify intervention at this point, especially if it’s just a rap on the knuckles to remind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now if the chemical attacks were to become a pattern there would be good reason to intervene. But for one occasion, it seems to me that it doesn’t weigh up compared to those who should have been protected and haven’t been, and those who still need protection. I just don’t understand. It seems to me you need a strategic objective, which doesn’t exist, and therefore just war norms don’t apply.

I love the format of just letting the various respondents weigh in and use the language applicable to the matter at hand. I’d also love an explainer for a bigger follow-up (if we have time before the bombs stop dropping). For instance, you’ll note that Christiansen discusses proportionality and success. Those are two of the important issues under Just War debate. This Foreign Policy piece looks at the likelihood of success (a big barrier to Just War criteria being met) as well as whether this use of force would be a last resort (they say yes). The piece, headlined “The Just War Tradition and the Paradox of Policy Failure in Syria,” is interesting.

There’s much more to be explored, but kudos to RNS for a solid discussion of the moral and ethical concerns at play in the U.S. path to war, just one of the important religion news angles in this story.

Syrian flag image via Shutterstock.

  • George Conger

    Great post Mollie. Speaking in the House of Lords tonight, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, raised the Just War criteria, saying its conditions were not met in the present circumstances. Welby also added that an Anglo-American strike may not harm the Assad regime, but the country’s Christian minority would be the loser as they would bear the blame for a foreign attack.

    http://anglicanink.com/article/archbishop-canterbury-rejects-military-strike-syria

  • Julia B

    That is a useful post, as well. Hope somebody from the WH is reading this.

  • juliaduin

    not for posting really -Tried to read the Foreign Policy piece but it tried to force me to sign up for an account. Any way to avoid that?

  • Kevin Osborne

    Wheels within wheels. If something makes no sense one doesn’t have all the information. For example, the Saudis want the rebels defended. The US is 17 trillion in debt. Everyone in Congress is subject to the boot if things fall apart.
    That is just one scenario but why are the high hats falling in line?
    Everyone dies. Every thing dies. The job of any leader is to make the present into the future. Is this act likely to aid the future?


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