Should there be missile strikes on Syria?

It has taken me a little while to work out whether or not missile strikes against Syria are justified by the UK at the moment.

It seems to me that there are quite a lot of people who don’t seem to need to take their time and know instinctively that military action either should or should not take place. Certainly those who are against missile strikes seem to be dusting down their “not in my name” T-shirts and getting ready to oppose military action.

If you are a pacifist then the answer is clear. If you are a pacifist then you are going to be opposed to military action come what may.

As it happens, I am not a pacifist. I think that there are situations when military action is justified but I think you’ve got to cross quite a high moral bar before you can justify the use of force.

There’s three tests for me – classic just war theory, intervention for humanitarian purposes and enforcing international law.

Let’s take them one by one.

Just War Theory

There’s plenty to read about Just War Theory. Some people don’t buy it at all but I think the tests are useful.

The idea is that certain conditions must be met before a war might be considered legitimate. Such tests are laid out, for example, in the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.

They are:

  1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  3. there must be serious prospects of success;
  4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).

In this case, I think that the first test is partly but not wholly met.

The use of chemical weapons is lasting and grave. However, the public doesn’t have certainty about how they were deployed. If governments have such  proof they have not made it public yet. There may be circumstances in which it is wise for governments to keep secret how they know things but it is the case that in modern times, simply saying “we know best and we are not telling you how we know” is a difficult place for governments to find themselves with their people.

The second test is difficult for me to assess. Are there any alternatives to military action. If military action is just about the use of chemical weapons and not about taking sides in the war then I don’t know whether there are any alternatives. There certainly don’t seem to be many.

The third test is more of a struggle I think. Is there really a serious chance of success? This doesn’t mean a chance that, for example, Western missiles might hit particular targets. The test is whether by hitting such targets, the use of chemical weapons would cease. Given that there were similar strikes by the US some time ago and we now appear to have further use of chemical weapons, I think we have to say that there are serious doubts about whether there is  realistic prospect of success.

The fourth test is perhaps the most grave. It seems to me that the use of force might well produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. We don’t know and we cannot know whether this test can be met in this case.

So, I’d say that Just War Theory offers little support for military intervention at the moment.

Intervention for Humanitarian Purposes

The UK has intervened in some countries in recent years for humanitarian purposes. In some cases it has gone well and in others perhaps less well. The Bosnian and Sierra Leone campaigns were said by many to be classic uses of force for good.

The prospect of missile strikes in Syria does not seem to me to be entirely about intervention for humanitarian purposes. Certainly it would be good to stop chemical weapons being used but far from certain that this can be achieved. I see no plans to be involved in building the peace after the bombing. I see no plans to intervene for anyone’s good.

Humanitarian concerns do not seem to be met by this proposed military intervention.

Enforcing International Law

The use of chemical weapons is illegal. Whoever used them committed a crime and should be brought to justice in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Military intervention that was designed to bring perpetrators to justice could, in my view, be justified.

However, I don’t think that what is currently apparently being considered comes anywhere near this.

My conclusion

So, my conclusion after looking at this proposed action through these moral lenses is that military action cannot be justified at this time.

That is not to say that I think this is easy. I may be wrong. I think that it behoves everyone to support military personnel involved in any action that is taken. And I have much sympathy with the politicians who have decisions to make.

I once wanted to be one of them.

They have a hard job to do with partial information and some information that cannot be shared.

So far as I can see this military action cannot be justified. However, I’m very aware that this is a view based on my limited knowledge of events.

My thoughts are with all who have decisions to make which affect the lives of others.

Comments

  1. I’m glad you wrote this. It’s helpful. But despite possible appearances to the contrary, I think I may after all be a pacifist. It’s taken me a long time to recognise it.

  2. George Hannah says:

    as someone who works in the office of a politician. I can safely say that I think your arguments make perfect sense are of the conclusion I have personally reached myself. I am not a pacifist and I strongly believe we need a stronger military. If we were to miraculously whip Assad to the Hague (I am aware we couldn’t) we would leave a vacuum behind worse than we did in Iraq. The issue is that none of the major players are after peace they want control of the situation.

  3. A good bit of logical working-out. Thanks for posting.

    One thing to consider: the area is not lacking for oil. This somewhat tempers any feeling that western powers might be involved purely for altruistic reasons.

  4. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    Well-thought-out, clearly presented, and (as you will have guessed) completely in line with my opinion of the truth of the situation. At this time, there really isn’t anything which can be done by military means–which does not, alas, mean that the US (my country) won’t try to do something, probably with dire results.

  5. John Duncan says:

    Thank you for this. It’s good to see someone thinking about this situation rather than just reacting to it. And it helps me to try and do the same.

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