|Can we frighten this man into killing|
people only conventionally?
United States armed forces, under President Trump's orders, conducted a missile attack against a Syrian airfield on March 6.
This attack was against a nation that, while reprehensible under the Assad regime, was at peace with the United States. But we bombed it absent any aggression by Syria against the United States, or even a threat of it.
I am framing my assessment in the context of Just War Theory (JWT henceforth), a theological inquiry in Christianity going back at least to Saint Augustine, 354-430. It's most robust treatment was by St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274, whose exposition was so thorough that it still forms the basis of modern theory. I have written over the years quite a bit about JWT in different contexts.
Today my main points are that going to war justly requires that at least these questions to be answered in the affirmative, below.
1. Is there just cause for the war?
2. Is the war authorized by proper authority?
3. Is it wise, as far as we can discern, to wage the war?
4. Is there a just objective to waging war?
First, though, there is the question whether the cruise-missile strikes against Sharyat airfield the evening of March 6 constituted "war," or were they military violence of a kind other than war. I think the answer is straightforward, for here the key point is not what President Trump wanted to do (frighten Assad) but the means he used to do it. And the means were exclusively military and violent.
Throughout history, to attack another country with military forces has been seen unambiguously as an act of war. Just imagine that the evening of Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese government messaged President Roosevelt that the air raid against Pearl Harbor should not be construed as as act of war, but only as a warning to the US not to inhibit Japan's imperial plans in the Far East. "We are prepared to do more," Japan might have said, if the United States did not comply. What do you think Roosevelt's response would have been?
And that leads to a second key point: Though President Trump initiated the violence, he does not get to call it war or not-war. Bashar Assad does. To expect that Assad sees the strikes as anything other than war is fantasy thinking.
This doesn't mean that Assad won't be cowed away from using chemical weapons again. My point is that no matter how the strikes are spun by the administration or others, they opened an actual war against Syria. The war may be brief, it may not. Syria might respond, it might not. But war it is. And we must remember that it takes both sides to end a war. The United States unilaterally began it, but we cannot unilaterally end it. This war will not be ended until Assad either says so or is removed from power. And even then his successor may choose to continue it.
Is there just cause for war?
Just Cause of war is the fundamental question, of course. I remember reading a (probably apocryphal) story of a South Seas island native chieftain who after a large battle between the US Marines and the Japanese in World War 2 asked the American commander who was going to eat the vast quantities of flesh of the slain soldiers.
The Marine general explained that neither the Japanese nor Americans killed people for food.
"What barbarians you are!" the chief replied, "To kill for no good reason!"
Historically, Western thought on war has held that war cannot be separated from larger concerns of nations, and in fact is one part of national relationships. "Politics is the womb in which war develops," said Prussian officer and theorist Carl von Clausewitz. More famous is his observation that, "War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means."
JWT has generally held that the political just cause for war is pretty narrowly expressed: either to defend one's own nation from actual or imminent
attack, or to protect innocent third parties from lethal aggression or oppression. Some years after the American Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman put it simply: "The only just aim of war is a more just peace," which is a political goal. Absent a political orientation, warfare becomes just what the South Seas chieftain said, an exercise in pointless killing.
Not all JWT theorists agree that a nation may strike pre-emptively even in the case of clearly imminent attack, but since no one in the Trump administration claims that Syria poses any kind of military threat to the US, I'll not address the self-defense tenet here, especially since in his remarks following the missile strike, President Trump never invoked it at all. (In fact, when President Obama was contemplating similar strikes in 2013, he said specifically that the United States did not face an imminent threat
Absent self defense, then, the question then becomes one of protection of the innocent. Is that the case here? Undeniably, victims of March 4's sarin attack against Idlib Province, held by opponents of the Assad regime, were innocent. After all, of the 85-plus people who died and scores more injured, many were children. So it would seem that a prima facie
case can be made that the cruise-missile attacks against Sharyat airfield were justified on the basis.
However, the question is then begged whether chemical weapons are so unique that American warmaking on their users is justifiable for that reason alone. The Syrian civil war has already taken the lives of 400,000 people, perhaps as many as 500,000, of whom many thousands were children and countless thousands more were adult non-combatants. Neither President Obama nor President Trump ever invoked the prospect of military strikes against Syrian government forces for that reason.
So what, exactly, makes Tuesday's chemical attack so uniquely
objectionable? It cannot be the number of victims, which in war's sanguinary calculus was rather small compared to other attacks by Syrian forces on civilian targets. Nor can it truly be that children were killed, even though President Trump did cite that specifically. Children have been killed all along.
It would seem, then, this administration like the prior one, maintains that the use of chemical weapons by itself
was the reason for the cruise missiles to be launched. Is that a just cause of war against Syria?If the answer is no
, then war making against Syria cannot justly be done on that basis alone.If the answer is yes
, as the administration clearly claims it is, we move to closely-related inquiry of JWT - the war we wage must be justly conducted to achieve a just objective, which Trump says is the cessation of chemical weapons.
Here is the sticking point as I see it. By focusing exclusively on chemical casualties, Trump has written off a half-million or so violently killed by other means. Trump spoke not a syllable indicating he would take active steps to end that slaughter. But Trump did call for a political settlement -- as did Obama, as have many other states, ad infinitum
and ad nauseum
But this simply means that at best
the war will continue with conventional violence only, and unnumbered thousands more will die -- unless truly decisive military steps are taken to remove Assad from power and enforce a ceasefire. Absolutely no nation is contemplating that -- which makes the claim that the deaths of this week's 85 persons are uniquely offensive simply hollow and morally unsustainable.
Let's look at the the JWT tenet of proportionality. The doctrine of proportionality is simply stated that the means of conducting the war must be proportionate to the goal for which the war is waged. Another way of looking at it is that while the just ends desired do not justify any
means to attain them, they absolutely justify some
means. The tenet of proportionality, then, is to assess what the justified means are, then employ those means and not the unjustified ones.
Which leads directly to the question: what exactly is the goal here? The president, secretary of state and others, in multiple remarks and interviews, have announced four key things:
A. There is no intention of effecting regime change in Syria by military means.
B. The strikes are to punish Assad's regime for using chemical weapons.
C. The strikes are intended to deter Assad from using such weapons in the future.
D. It is more urgent than ever that a political solution to the conflict be obtained.
Are these just objectives of war? If so, it is apparently just to "punish" Assad for using chemical weapons, and to deter him from using them again, but not just to remove him from power. Why? (I will note that these are identical objectives to those of President Obama in 2013.)
In fact, is punishment itself a just aim of war? This tends to slide the war into a legal enforcement mode, which indeed the president has more or less confirmed in his denunciation of Assad's use of chemical weapons. But that only makes us confront a key question: why is it just to punish Assad but leave him in power - when it was his criminal exercise of power that is at the heart of the violation?The question of means
"Without killing," wrote Clausewitz, "there is no war." Conducting war is a matter of intentional lethality
. In the proposed war against Syria, then, this is the question of means: What constitutes a level of violence inflicted upon the Assad regime that is effective deterrence against using WMDs by the regime again or, in future years, deters other bad actors in the region?
The centering question of the doctrine of proportionality is deciding the violence necessary to achieve
the war's objectives while not using excessive violence to do so. To employ too little violence is as disproportionate as to employ too much. It is unjust to wage war ineffectively even for a just cause.
Hence, planning for such strikes necessarily involved a massive amount of guess work on what level of lethality and destruction needed to be inflicted upon Syria to ensure the Assad regime never orders the use of chemical weapons again. But that is a heavily psychological calculation for which a high-confidence answer is practically impossible!
The reason is that we do not know the calculations Assad used to to order the chem-weapons attack in the first place. What was going through his mind when he gave the order? We don't know, although in 2013 the Obama administration said it had intercepted some messages that gave some clues. Even if the Trump administration has such messages, they are almost certainly originated mostly by subordinates and oriented toward action rather than rationale, and are many levels removed from what Assad was thinking, Since making him fearful of re-use is a stated goal of the president, our own calculations' margin of uncertainty is bound to be very vast.
As for deterring leaders of other nations, namely Iran and North Korea, assessing what example to make of Syria to deter them is like entering a dark room blindfolded, in the dead of night in a dense fog, to look for a black cat that may not even be there. Does anyone really expect that the Iranian or North Korean governments will abandon their goal of attaining nuclear capability just because the United States mounted a very limited missile strike against Syria, even if the president has promised would be repeated if he sees fit?
All of these things mean that the proportionality calculus has no answer. It is like a math question to solve the value of X in which both the variables and constants are also unknown. We do not know how much death and destruction to inflict upon Assad-Syria to persuade the regime to refrain from using a single class of weapons in the future, and have no realistic prospect that we even can know. And this is a problem cubed for deterrence of other national regimes.
So the question: Even stipulating that the use of chemical weapons is a just cause for the proposed war, can the war be justly waged when we have no way of assessing, within reasonable margins of error, what waging it will require to achieve its stated goals?
When I was assigned to the Pentagon during the planning for Operation Desert Storm, the first ground war against Iraq in 1991, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl Vuono emphasized that in our planning we needed to remember two simple concepts: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." Good advice now, too. To which I add: launching missiles is not a strategy.
But is there a strategy?ABC News Radio reported March 8
|This is not a strategy. It may be a means to achieve a strategy. Or it may not. |
of the aftermath of a meeting between the Senate's leaders and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford on the previous day:
“We don’t have the benefit of a larger strategy, for the same reason that I think the previous administration had difficulty coming up with a strategy, because it’s very, very complicated,” Sen. John Cornyn, the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate, said Friday after a meeting with the Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Hill adds
Senators left a closed-door briefing Friday saying the Trump administration did not lay out a comprehensive plan for Syria.
Cornyn added that there were “discussions” about the legal authority being used in Syria and whether the administration’s main target is President Bashar Assad government's or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“We ... need a strategy to figure out what is our goals in Syria,” he said. “Is our goal just to defeat ISIS or is our goal to change the regime, and if there is policy to change the regime what comes next?”
There is presently no answer to that question.
My conclusion: The Trump administration has no strategic objectives evidenced by the missile strikes. "No chemical weapons" is not a strategic goal because it leaves untouched and undeterred almost all of Assad's total offensive capability and gives assent to the war's continuation, even escalation, by conventional means and offers no remotely significant protection of the innocent from lethal attack.There is no just cause for this war if we use the terms and conditions that President Trump himself has set.2. Is the war authorized by proper authority?
The US Constitution clearly grants to Congress, and only
to Congress, the authority to "declare war." However, the Constitution does not define just what constitutes a declaration. As then-Senator Joe Biden accurately explained in 2001, the Congress has declared war when the Congress thinks it has. Hence, he said, an Authorization for the Use of Military Force meets Constitutional muster
as a declaration of war.
I happen to be a professor of Constitutional law. I'm the guy that drafted the Use of Force proposal that we passed. It was in conflict between the President and the House. I was the guy who finally drafted what we did pass. Under the Constitution, there is simply no distinction ... Louis Fisher(?) and others can tell you, there is no distinction between a formal declaration of war, and an authorization of use of force. There is none for Constitutional purposes. None whatsoever.
Constitutional lawyers over the decades have held that varying kinds of enabling acts, such as monetary appropriations for military action, have also amounted to Constitutional satisfaction and, at least, consent of the Congress to action ordered by the president, in whom the Constitution grants authority to conduct warfare.
Neither of these conditions pertained to the missile strikes. The president did not even bring into consultation the senior leaders of either chamber of Congress before the strikes took place. Even stipulating that bombing Assad's forces may be justified under humanitarian concerns, what the Guardian [newspaper] is conflating is the difference between moral justification of war and legal basis for it. They are not the same.
Under classic just war theory, both just cause and rightful authority are required. In Syria today there may be just cause for Western intervention, but so far there has been no rightful authority for it. Since the dawn of the American republic, the Congress and the presidents have generally agreed that the president may order US forces into combat against another nation, solely on his own authority, if and only if there is:
1. Imminent danger of attack from the other power, so imminent that time taken for Congressional deliberations would hinder defense against it, or,
2. To protect actual threat against US citizens abroad, or to rescue them from actual danger.
Neither of these were the case in Syria. Therefore, no matter the moral justification of them, the missile strikes failed the test of rightful authority. This is the president wielding military power not in a representative-democratic manner, but in a monarchist manner.
There was and is no threat to the United States or to the Syrian people that is so immediately imminent that no time dare be spent in Congressional deliberation to authorize the strikes. If there is, the president should explain why, with 400,000-plus already dead, a few more days of deliberation is unwarranted.My conclusion: The "proper authority" test was not met.3. Is it wise, as far as we can discern, to wage the war?
With the failure of the first two criteria, it is hard to see how this war is being waged wisely so far. That the risk of confrontation with Russia has risen, perhaps sharply, seems incontrovertible. However, this question is really one of consequences as cannot be well answered except retrospectively.My conclusions: Although I do not think the strikes were wise, based on their failure of proportionality (mainly meaning that Assad, not concrete and dirt, should have been the target), I'll keep an open mind. It may turn out to have been better than ill-advised. We will just have to wait and see.4. Is there a just objective to waging war?
Well, not yet. See all of the above. But to the point: the deaths and suffering inflicted by chemical weapons have been and are such a tiny part of the overall deaths and suffering inflicted that merely
ending their use is not in itself a just objective of waging war against Assad's Syria.Final thought
One thing the chemical and missile attacks have done is illustrate that the status quo - unending war that is effectively a proxy war between the Western powers one one side and Russia and Iran on the other - cannot be maintained for long. Eventually, Trump and his administration will be faced with doing something other than simply keeping their hand in. The United States will face the hard choice in Syria of going big or going home.
That is exactly is the reason that Congressional and public debate must be entered into sooner rather than later. Going to war against Assad-Syria may
be the right thing to do (or maybe the least-bad option) but President Trump initiated it the wrong way politically, strategically, and tactically.
Secretary of State John Kerry insisted in June 2013 that US warplanes should begin bombing Assad-regime targets right away. But he said that US bombings would be "unbelievably small" in their scope and effects. Not only would such intervention fail the Just War test, it also failed the test of the rigidly secular concept of Realpolitik
The key note from that day: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey made it clear that a few runs on target would do no good, that if the bombing was not be be merely symbolic, it would require a sustained, large effort of no short duration.
What has changed since then? Nothing. Except now there are Russian boots on the ground in Syria, which certainly does not simplify things.
Update: "The Grim Logic Behind Syria’s Chemical Weapons Attack"