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Unjustified, by just-war standards

Now featured on the homepage: George Hunsinger evaluates the proposed attack on Syria by the criteria of just war--and finds it wanting.

How should U.S. citizens and their elected representatives decide this dreadful question? A defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified.

In my view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards. Let us review them in order.

Read the whole thing here.

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Has any war actually met all four criteria. Certainly George W. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not. I wonder about the American Civil War. Was the preservation of the Union really a justification for the hundreds of thousands killed and wounded? What about the American Revolution? Does anyone in a position to fight a war really take just-war theory into account? It seems to me attempting to apply just-war theory to past or potential wars is purely an academic exercise. It is a lot like Catholic Social Teaching. It only gets trotted out to support views one already has. 

What an absolute disaster the Iraq war was, and one of the worst aspects was Colin Powell largely successful attempt to persuade Americans of something that turned out not to be true. It was such a disservice to the country that now, when military intervention <i>might</i> be the right action to take, it is all but unthinkable because of the wholly unjustified Iraq invasion sold largely on the basis of bad intelligence and outright lies. Bush, Cheney, and Powell have a tremendous amount to answer for not merely for what they did, but for what the consequences of their unjustified warmaking and failures did to the American will to act in the current situation.

Does anyone in a position to fight a war really take just-war theory into account?

I'd think that President Obama is more likely to take it seriously than any other president in our lifetimes.

I agree that Bush, Powell et al poisoned the well for future presidents.  But I think that President Obama comes at this situation from a very different point of view than President Bush.  Bush presumably was searching for a rationale for going into Iraq.  I don't think that is the case with President Obama and Syria; Obama was elected in part  because of his promise to exit wars in the Middle East.  I believe that the President is genuinely morally outraged about the use of poison gas, and so in his mind and heart, he believes that there is just cause.

As for legitimate authority - who is the legitimate authority in this case?  Arguably, it is not the UN, as apparently there is no chance it will act; it has abdicated its authority; it possesses no authority in this matter that we may judge to be legitimate.  Is any other entity morally justified in entering the vacuum left by a dysfunctional UN?  For example, is NATO a legitimate authority in this instance?  What about the US, with the implicit approval of a majority of G20 (which the President is claiming he has lined up at the G20 meeting this week)?

Regarding last resort: I think a reasonable case can be made that we have reached the point of last resort.  It's not as though diplomatic efforts haven't been tried; they've been tried for years.  A strongman not only threatened to use a weapon of mass destruction while diplomatic efforts were underway; he already has actually used it, and may do so again at any moment.  When the horse has left the barn, it's reasonable to conclude that the last possible moment to close the barn door not only has arrived, but has already passed.

As for reasonable chance of success - I think this is discussed with an air of more certainty than is warranted.  We don't actually know what will be done by the US, nor what the expected effect will be, nor what the probability of success is.  The leaks in the press may be accurate, or they may be misdirection.  Will we assassinate Assad and/or his leadership?  Will we incapacitate his fighting capability in some way?  Will we do something else?  Most Americans haven't been briefed on these things, and those who have been briefed aren't telling.  

I am making these points, not because I think action really is warranted, but just because I perceive that this is the President's line of thought.  I don't suppose he consults the Catechism of the Catholic Church when he is weighing a military strike, but he is formed to some extent in Christian theology, and I think his intuition that action is required in this instance is genuine.


The Gulf War was surrounded by a lot of Just War Talk from Bush I.He certainly did a better job than any president since in trying to meet those condition--whatever you make of the outcome.

I read a long time ago that when Bush I saw that our troops were crushing the other side and doing it  very quickly he called off the campaign, saying "This isn't war, this is slaughter".  For me this supported his reputation as a decent man. 

It seems to me that the only way to stop the massacres in the M. E. is to change the theology of the Islamists.  Does anyone anywhere have any theological leverage with the Islamists?  Are they truly motivated by theology in the first place?  


If I understand correctly the suggestion has been made Bush did, not in mere talking points but in fact, sincerely try to meet the criteria of a just war in launching this nation into the Gulf War.  I would very much like to hear the details supporting that argument.

As for the cure to the dilemma being we (or someone) needs "to change the theology of the Islamists" I suggest spending a bit of time reviewing the findings and conclusions amassed in a fairly sizeable Gallop poll done not long after 9/11 and well expressed by Dalia Mogahed, among others. 

The poll findings are here

and an introduction to a resulting book "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think" can be found here

The means, motives, tactics and results of fanaticism are the same no matter what label the loons in charge choose to give themselves.

As for Obama and this mess I am reasonably certain he hopes to God he does not lead this nation into another military conflict.  I am completely certain the seemingly limitless number of media pundits (none of whom do I remember electing) inserting themselves into grand debates with no responsiblity ain't helping a bit.   However it goes they'll get a headline or two.




MightBe ==

Thanks for the information about what the Muslims think.

My comment was only about the Islamists, a definte minority among the Muslims but influential way behond their numbers.  It is my understanding that their preferred texts of the Koran are those which call for war against infidels.    

I posted this link over under the whole article where, I guess, no one looks. The link is to David Kaye in Foreign Affairs:

The article addresses international law, not morality, but I don't know how one can discuss "legitimate authority" without discussing law. As I said over there, two wrongs don't make a right. The adage seems to have escaped the past two administrations, and some of the posts here seem content with Obama's utilitarian moral justification.

That we[the majority of Americans and others] now are where we were a hundred years ago -accepting of the use of chemical warfare-is truly appalling.The use of chemical weapons as Kerry and Obama have said has been considered unacceptable for one hundred years now because that is how far we advanced morally after they were used in WW1.That we are now so callous and hardened with hatred or indifference to the suffering of others [in this case muslims] that we wish to remove that red line  is truly regressive.That we accept a false narrative that the Syrians are fighting the Assad regime because they're religious fanatics is part of a disinfoirmation campagn designed to let us see the bodies of 400 children gassed to death and rationalize turning a blind eye.[those evil religious fanatics are at it again.Who care!].I don't believe Obama misspoke when he "threw out  that line"  about red lines.I believe he was disturbed by the level of violence against the civilians that Assad was engaging in for 2 years now. He knew the people were indifferent [as the politicians and media expressed a let- em- all -kill- each- other ethos] and those few  like Mc Cain who WERE   concerned were increasingly, with every expressed concern for the level of slaughter taking place by the regime, marginalized as loony .Obama made the statement about red lines because he anticipated that perhaps if the red line were crossed  he could bring the people on board as it would change their moral calculus of indifference at the slaughter of cilvilians. He was kind of already trying to prepare us for the possibility of some kind of intervention. Similar to his initial comments about  his stance  on gay marriage when  he said he oppossed it but left the door open by saying  that his views were still "evolving" on that issue. As soon as he said that-I recall telling myself he'll  be back in a few years telling us how he had "evolved" and now accepted gay marriage. Obama does not misspeak.

Let's not deflect once again from the matters at hand.  Obama is president.  Him.  He's the one.  Not Bush, not the Republicans.  Barack Obama.  So let's put away that tired old tactic of dragging Bush into it every time that Obama is found wanting in making just and moral decisions.  Deal with today, not ten years ago.

The issues are what to do about Syria now.    If we accept that Assad is a murderous thug - he's been one for a while and we did nothing - what do we do about it now? 

If we accept that he ordered the chemical attacks - and that is not definitively established since there were reports last year that rebel forces had captured military bases where chemical weapons are stored - does the manner of killing change anything? 

If the offensive military action that is being advocated (it most certainly is not a defensive action since we've neither been attacked nor threatened) will not really change the overall dynamic, if it will cause more harm than good, is it a just, moral, and yes, legal thing to do?  Is “punitive military action” ever the subject of “just war” or is it, by its backward-looking, tit-for-tat retalitatory nature inherently wrong?

If Russia or China or even Iran had done this, instead of some punk Middle East country, would there still be this huffing and puffing for war?  Or would we not dare to try to bully countries that are big enough to hit back?

Is it really certain that we can commit acts of war against even tiny countries like Syria with impunity?  Do we really think that we can war against them and then just walk away?  Is there a possiblity that one of these days that when we attack and kill their people that they might take exception to it, that they will not simply take it, but will respond with “this means war” and counter-attack?  If we go and destroy buildings and homes in Syria, if we go and kill a bunch of Syrians, and then they respond with killing Americans and destroying American facilities, can we rightly object?

If starting a war of aggression against a country that has not attacked or threatened us, even if they’ve killed and oppressed their own people, ends up making things worse, if it does not make Syria safe for democracy or safe for freedom and peaceful living, if it instead only makes it safe for killing more innocent people, safe for persecuting Christians (which is being done by the Syrian “opposition” and not by the Assad regime), is this a wise or good thing to do?  If weaking one set of bad guys only ends up strengthening another set of bad guys, is this a just thing to do?

These are – or should be, but it does not appear that they are – questions for Obama and his team.  And if Obama defies the will of the American people, overwhelmingly in opposition, if he defies the will of Congress, also overwhelmingly in opposition (even if some of them for partisan reasons might back him or for the morally reprehensible reason of thinking that “America” needs to keep its word even when its president foolishly tells others “do what I say or else”), if Obama defies the international community in its opposition, and launches a rain of death and destruction upon Syria, which will impact many innocent people, not only the wrongdoers, then what is to be done about it?  If Obama says that he’ll do whatever the hell he wants regardless of what the Congress and country and entire world ways, then what?

Here's an article in WaPo by Thistlewaite concerning what the U.S. can do other than take military action.




Mightbe @9/6/11:50 pm: Not an argument but a factual statement and perhaps in modern times a text book case of a war run on Just War criteria.

I was speaking from memory, but you can read all about it here. The Gulf War: Just or Unjust?

If I understand correctly the suggestion has been made Bush did, not in mere talking points but in fact, sincerely try to meet the criteria of a just war in launching this nation into the Gulf War.  I would very much like to hear the details supporting that argument. - See more at:
If I understand correctly the suggestion has been made Bush did, not in mere talking points but in fact, sincerely try to meet the criteria of a just war in launching this nation into the Gulf War.  I would very much like to hear the details supporting that argument. - See more at:
If I understand correctly the suggestion has been made Bush did, not in mere talking points but in fact, sincerely try to meet the criteria of a just war in launching this nation into the Gulf War.  I would very much like to hear the details supporting that argument. - See more at:
If I understand correctly the suggestion has been made Bush did, not in mere talking points but in fact, sincerely try to meet the criteria of a just war in launching this nation into the Gulf War.  I would very much like to hear the details supporting that argument. - See more at:

There is a false dichotomy between doing nothing and doing something in that the doing something means bombing and doing nothing means walking away.

What needs to happen is (as I have been saying before) a coherent, clear, articulate, foreign policy that vigorously engages in these disputes. This means that the president's attention needs to be focussed on international matters, or at least the secretary of state, needs to be clear on what the US can and cannot offer by way of support for developing democracies and mediation. In this, there needs to be the co-operation of leaders on a range of ideas on how to manage popular uprisings (often due to economic anxieties). The so called Arab spring, for example, was something the US and world should have been more aware of. Within these uprisings were secular minded, reformists mixed with radical jihadists. That movement needed to have leadership and it appears that now the extreme factions gained the upper hand. But had we been smart, we could have been supporting, along with our partners, the more secularist moderates either financially or technologically.

In a highly globalized world it is impossible for any world leader not to have a sense of the shape of things internationally. They also can shape, internationally, systems and structures. But this requires a thoughtful and clear vision of what is in our interest. 

So far interests have been defined only economically (e.g. stable oil prices, safe passage) and the one sided support of Israel has also hurt. This just cannot be denied.

Let's not deflect once again from the matters at hand.  Obama is president.  Him.  He's the one.  Not Bush, not the Republicans. 


No matter how well or badly Obama has handled things since he was elected, and no matter how right or wrong his current approach to Syria is, it's just a fact that the way America and its allies view the possible use of force in Syria is strongly influenced by the fact that we invaded Iraq because the Bush administration claimed there were "weapons of mass distruction" there. That war lasted eight years. Our views are also strongly influenced by the fact that we spent eight years fighting the war in Iraq and we're still fighting in Afghanistan after twelve years. Obama owns all of the problems now, and nobody forced him to run for president. But it is absolute nonsense to pretend that the past didn't happen and Obama is not saddled with it. 


Two of the main themes running through discussions of a possible strike on Syria are, first, we can't be sure the government knows the truth (is is telling the truth) about what happened with chemical weapons in Syria, because the government was wrong (or lying) about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war; and second, nobody wants to get into another war in the the Middle East. I don't see that striking Syria would amount to, or lead to, a war, but in any case, you can't be worried about another war unless you have already had one, and George Bush got us into two. Countless commentators and newspaper headlines describe the American people as war weary? And why are they (we) war weary? Because George Bush got us into war in 2001, and we are still at war in 2013.

This still haunts me: "We all have the strength to endure the misfortune of others. "(Francois De La Rochefoucauld)

If nothing happens militarily and, most likely diplomatically, and the slaughter goes on, for how long can the rest of us "have the strength to endure the misfortune of others?"  Cluck-clucking after a couple of hours of devastating nightly news is a lousy ablution for one's conscience.

"It's not our war.  It's none of our business.  We need to be spending the money on our own needs here at home. etc."  I've heard it all over and over and over.

Any yet ....

"Every person must decide whether to walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of selfishness. This is the judgment. Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?" (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)





OK, fine.  Bush was a war mongering another Hitler.

Now let's deal with today.  Let's deal with shooting missiles and dropping bombs and destroying buildings and killing people -- all of which are ACTS OF WAR.  They don't "lead to war," they ARE war.

Ms. Steinfels - Bush and the just war arguments.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to make just war arguments when your *evidence* is based upon lies, ideologoies, and corrupted intelligence.  Bush wouldn't know a just war argument if he stumbled over it.


Bender - you ask some excellent questions that, per Jim P., I think are being considered and evaluated.  Sorry, do not agree that it is a disputed question about who used these chemical weapons; although, do believe that this administration is going to have to be more transparent, more revealing along the lines of Clinton and Libya.  Also, think that a final decision needs to wait on the UN investigative findings.

Agree, not naive enought to think that one event (two-three days long) will end it.  This will entail agressive oversight and intelligence 24/7 to find and stop any added attempts at the use of chemical warfare.  Syrian's capabilities in this area are not advanced - it requires a couple of days in open areas to prepare and launch chemical weapons.  Unfortunately, until Russia ends its open-ended support of Syria, do not expect any progress on negotiations, ceasefire, etc.

Bill de Haas: not sure whether you caught that my reference was to the first President Bush and the Gulf War not the second Bush and the war in Iraq. If you understood that than we have a disagreement. 

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