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.

Duke University Divinity School theologian Stanley Hauerwas is often considered America's most important Protestant theologian. Photo courtesy Duke University

Duke University Divinity School emeritus theologian Stanley Hauerwas is often considered America’s most important Protestant theologian. Photo courtesy Duke University


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Stanley Hauerwas

Professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School

What possible grounds does the United States have for intervention? The language of the world’s policeman comes up again. You want to know, ‘Who appointed you the world’s policeman?’

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.

Of course (nerve) gas is a terrible weapon. You hear echoes of weapons of mass destruction. And with gas you can’t control it in terms of its indiscriminate effects. But again, I just don’t know how intervention fits under “just war” categories. Syria isn’t attacking the United States.

The U.S. ought to ask the Arab League to do something. Near neighbors have more responsibility in these situations. If the U.S. intervenes, we just reinforce the presumption, which is true, that we’re an imperial power.

The language of intervention and no-intervention is meaningless. America has hundreds of military bases around the world. We’ve intervened. 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.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.  Religion News Service photo courtesy Brookings Institution

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Religion News Service photo courtesy Brookings Institution


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William Galston

Senior fellow, Brookings Institution

In principle, just war theory does justify military intervention to protect innocent human life — as long as the proposed action meets the tests of effectiveness and proportionality. But nations may undertake military action only after every other possible means of ending the bloodshed has been exhausted.

Although we can argue about whether that condition has been met in the case of Syria, prospects for diplomatic progress appear slim, and the Syrian government’s recent use of poison gas against a rebel stronghold probably derailed diplomacy indefinitely. For the Assad regime, there’s no middle ground; if it doesn’t prevail militarily, it will disappear. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if we do nothing, nothing will change, and the slaughter of civilians will continue indefinitely.

If we can act effectively to protect innocent human life, we have an obligation do so — unless the costs to us are prohibitive (and there’s no reason to suppose they must be). We failed that test in Rwanda but met it in the Balkans. We do not know whether the options we now have will prove effective, but that uncertainty does not justify doing nothing.

Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the United States Institute of Peace. Photo courtesy United States Institute of Peace

Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the United States Institute of Peace. Photo courtesy United States Institute of Peace


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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, SJ, a Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College who has been a longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs and the Middle East.  Photo courtesy Rev. Drew Christiansen

The Rev. Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College who has been a longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops on international affairs and the Middle East. Photo courtesy Caitlin Cunnihgham, Boston College

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.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson Founder and director of the Two Futures Project and the author of the forthcoming "The World Is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good." Photo courtesy Tyler Wigg-Stevenson

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson,
founder and director of the Two Futures Project and the author of the forthcoming “The World Is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good.” Photo courtesy Tyler Wigg-Stevenson


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

broyde

Rabbi Michael Broyde, professor of law and senior fellow, Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion. Photo courtesy Rabbi Michael Broyde

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 (and while that biblical verse does not directly apply for a variety of technical reasons), its ideals certainly ought to guide us. When the lives of innocent people are at stake, all people should do whatever they can to save those lives, even if this means that the lives of the guilty will be lost.

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.

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University. Photo courtesy Andrew Bacevich

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University. Photo courtesy Andrew Bacevich


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Andrew J. Bacevich

Professor of international relations at Boston University

From a moral perspective, it appears that observers see killing civilians with chemical weapons as somehow different from killing civilians with conventional weapons. I don’t know why there would be any distinction. Egyptians who are killed are just as dead as the Syrians who were killed, and though it appears that dying of a chemical weapons attack is an awful experience, frankly bleeding to death from a gunshot wound to your chest or stepping on a mine that blows off your leg is equally awful. So anyone who makes an argument that there’s a moral obligation to act has to address that question: Why here and not there?

The second aspect it seems to me is: What do we expect to achieve? Even if there is a moral case for intervention, how does the use of force remedy the situation? It appears to me that this is going to be a very limited attack with a very limited target set. There’s no intention of overthrowing the regime and no intention of limiting the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian Army.

So beyond allowing ourselves to feel virtuous because we have done something in response to a reprehensible act, what has been gained? If indeed the episode in Syria rises to the level where it is different from Egypt and we really are morally obligated to do something, then it ought to be something more than just a gesture. And of course as a practical matter, nobody’s got the appetite to do anything more than make gestures.

Robert Parham: 

Executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. 

As President Obama campaigns for military action against Syria, Christians would do well to remember the eight rules of “Just War.”

First is the just cause of protecting innocent human life.

Second is securing the authorization for war from Congress.

Third is last resort, the exhaustion of efforts at conflict resolution before launching a war.

Fourth is just intent. Restoring U.S. honor or punishing Syria after it has crossed the “red line” of chemical weapons hardly passes just intent.

Fifth is probability of success–a high chance to achieve war’s stated purpose.

Sixth is proportionality of cost. War must do more good than harm. Do U.S. strikes prolong the civil war and create more refugees?

Seventh is just means. Targeting non-combatant civilians is immoral, which makes strikes in urban areas problematic.

Eighth is clear announcement. The U.S. must state clearly why and when Syria will be struck.

These are high moral hurdles to cross. Yet it is better to cross them than to rush into war – war is always more costly with more negative unforeseen consequences than war-makers project.

 (This article was reported by Yonat Shimron, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, David Gibson and Lauren Markoe.)

KRE/AMB END RNS

33 Comments

  1. Ken Jorgensen

    I suspect it is just as well that the politicians are making the decisions. One writer said “…the U.S. is not the sword of God.” Really, who in the last hundred years has been protecting freedom in the world. Is God not interested in freedom? I suggest that he is very interested in freedom. To put down tyranny is always right. True, removing Assad may not eliminate tyranny, but it is certain that if he is not removed tyranny will continue.

    • Well the horrendously evil Soviet Union played an important role against nazi Germany. And while some good consequences have come from US intervention, it hasn’t always ended up well. At least one third of Iraqs Christiahs have had to flee since Saddam was taken out. There is also ample evidence than in our oppositions against truly evil communist dictators, who were certainly imperialists in their own right, that the United States had offered support to some truly evil “far right” dictators as well. After “losing” the Vietnam war, and after the US supported Kuonmingtang lost in China, bother areas have made substantial progress. China and Vietnam have been engaged in market reforms and become more prosperous, while the human rights situation is terrible, it has gotten better, and in Vietnam, citizens are polled as having a higher approval rating of the US, the American people, and the free market system than many European countries. If this much can be done in the absence of successful violent intervention, doesn’t that leave room for considering non violent intervention? Did we really have to, in an act of utilitarian logic kill thousands of civilians in Japan, including in what some have called the heart of Japanese Christianity (Nagasaki), to change that society? If we are going to argue from history we need to have it in proper perspective. World police policies have not always been humane, nor effective.

    • Carl Rosenberg

      I can think of a few occasions when the U.S. didn’t intervene to defend freedom–in the early 50s, when they put the Shah of Iran back in power; on endless occasions throughout the twentieth century when they supported military dictatorships in Latin America, often supporting the overthrow of elected governments in the process (Arbenz in Guatemala, Goulart in Brazil, Bosch in the Dominican Republic, Allende in Chile); defending a string of dictatorships in their neocolonial war in Vietnam. Not exactly an angel of freedom.

  2. Just war, go don’t go JUST DON’T TAKE MY SON …..
    WW!!< korea, Nicar, Viet, Iraq, afgahn
    Just don't take my son, he is studying to be a …………

      • Lauren Markoe

        Lauren Markoe

        We also noted the lack of a female expert before we published this. There are many more men than women in this particular field, and we could not find a female commentator — someone who had written about about just war theory in particular — who was able to comment by our tight deadline. But please know that we will continue to seek a diversity of sources.

  3. Many of these religious experts all seem to assume that Assad was behind the attacks. That has not been proven nor have we seen any strong evidence of the same.
    Secondly, Assad, as bad a guy as he might be, is fighting a rebellion in his country and the U.S. is standing in to help the rebels just as Britain helped the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
    A U.S attack is not about morals it is about world politics and the apparent policy in the Mideast to destabilize all the countries. Do Iraq and Libya have better governments and human rights than before the U.S. and the world got involved?
    I don’t recall Jesus saying anything about “just war” As I recall of my reading he was for peace and against killing. I cannot speak to Judaic war theory but, I think Christians are supposed to be against all killing. “Just War” is just a theory dreamed up so religious leaders could make nice with political leaders. Telling those in power not to kill is not a winning position. True religious leaders promote peace. Ghandi, Jesus, Martin Luther King are fair examples.

  4. How can it be that you did not offer one woman’s perspective??? Are all religious opinions male opinions to you? There is more to justice than war.

    • Kevin Eckstrom

      Rebecca, it’s a very important question, and one we wrestled with. As it turns out, this field is almost entirely dominated by men, but that’s no excuse. We did ask around — repeatedly — for a woman’s voice and came up relatively empty. Again, not an excuse, just more of an explanation. Thanks for writing in.

  5. Howard Hallman

    There are a variety of alternatives to bombing Syria as explained in an article “The Rush to Bomb Syria: Undermining International Law and Risking Wider Law” found at http://wslfweb.org/docs/wslfsyriabrief1.pdf.

  1. […] The ethics of a Syrian military intervention: The experts respond Aug 29, 2013 “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?” Responses from: Stanley Hauerwas, Professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School William Galston, Senior fellow, Brookings Institution Qamar-ul Huda, Senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace The Rev. Drew Christiansen, Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College and longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs 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” Rabbi Michael Broyde, Professor of law and senior fellow, Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of international relations at Boston University Robert Parham, Executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. […]

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