Monday, September 2, 2013

Just War Theory and Syria Strikes, Part One

Can we frighten this man into killing
people only conventionally?
I am framing this inquiry 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.

Today my main points are that going to war requires at least three questions to be answered in the affirmative, below. In this post I'll only address the first for brevity's sake and leave the other two for later.

1. Is there just cause for the war?

2. Is the war authorized by proper authority?

3. Is it wise to wage the war?

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 WW2 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, heavily influenced by Christian theology, 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 German 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 deadly 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 its 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 Obama administration claims that Syria poses any kind of military threat to the US, I'll not address the self-defense tenet here.

The question then becomes one of protection of the innocent, and whether chemical weapons are sui generis so that American warmaking on their users is justifiable for that reason alone. That is, in a civil war in which everyone agrees that at least 100,000 people on all sides have died, untold numbers of whom were murdered outside the laws of war but by conventional means, is the use of chemical weapons by itself a just cause for the US to wage war on Syria, a nation not at peace with itself but with which the US is now at peace?

If the answer is no, then war making against Syria cannot morally be done. If the answer is yes, as the administration clearly claims it is, we move to the next crucial inquiry of JWT - the war we wage must be justly conducted.

I'll shape this discussion around 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 specifically announced three key objectives:

A. There is no intention of effecting regime change in Syria.

B. The strikes are to punish Assad's regime for using chemical weapons.

C. The strikes are intended to deter Assad (and others) from using such weapons in the future.

Are these just objectives of war? If so, it is apparently just to "punish" Assad for using chemical weapons, but not just to remove him from rule. Why?

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 insistence that Assad has violated "international norms." We thus circle back to the previous paragraph: 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 using 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, campaign planning for the upcoming strikes will necessarily involve a massive amount of guess work on what level of lethality and destruction needs to be inflicted upon Syria to ensure the Assad regime never uses chemical weapons again. But that is a heavily psychological calculation for which an 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 the intercepted messages the Obama administration says it has should offer some clues. Even so such messages, originated mostly by subordinates and oriented toward action rather than rationale, are many levels removed from what Assad was thinking, and 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, 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 government will abandon its goal of attaining nuclear capability just because the United States mounted a bombing campaign against Syria that the president has already promised would be "brief and limited?"

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 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.

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