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.

Why government assassinations are wrong

Earlier this week we had the revelation that British military forces had targeted two citizens of this country in Syria and killed them using a remotely controlled drone.

I’m aware of some concerns being expressed by the usual suspects – ie lefty guardian-reading knit your own sandals people who can be relied upon to object to such action. However, I’m also aware that such such action is also wildly popular in the country. Indeed, there are reports that the action is backed 2 to 1 by the general public.

At that point, the Prime Minister might feel that he can sit back and relax, job well done. He has removed a perceived threat cleanly and without any great risk to British military personnel and he is backed by the British people. In any case, the opposition in parliament is in disarray – Labour electing a new leader, the Liberal Democrats annihilated by their inability to be seen as liberals and the SNP famous more for playing musical chairs in parliament than anything of any substance.

However, it seems to me that whilst the views of the moderate UK majority are interesting they are certainly not the only views that need to be thought about. I’m not particularly thinking of those whose knees jerk like mine to oppose the military action either.

I’m more concerned with those who are our opponents.

I don’t believe that we can necessarily defeat religiously motivated terrorism by military might. I think we have to defeat it with ideas too. And by persuading people, constantly persuading people that the rule of law, expressed in a democracy is a better thing to live under than any other system of government. If we dare to think that the rule of law can become legitimately blurred on the edges of our jurisdiction (not sending people across the Syrian border but sending a drone is as blurred as it could get) then we start to find our own legitimacy more easily questioned by those who are opposed to our freedoms.

To put it bluntly, I think we are better than this. Or at least I did. I think we need to be a society which does not allow its government to assassinate its citizens without a fair trial. Yes, I know there is “intelligence” and I also know that intelligence can be wrong. Remember Weapons of Mass Destruction anyone?

If we become a society in which such behaviour is normal, how are we going to win any argument with those who currently live amongst us who have some sympathy for the ISIS cause, who are tempted to throw in their lot against the freedoms that the west possesses? If, in their minds, Britain can cross borders with weapons and wipe someone out arbitrarily, why shouldn’t they?

Why shouldn’t they? That’s a real question that not nearly enough people have been asking this week.

The actions of the Prime Minister in ordering this action brutalise our world and will make our opponents better able to recruit people who believe soft UK targets to be legitimate.

To whom shall we be compared? Shall we be like them or are we better than that? Is it true that Putin’s Russia, sent out state assassins to kill Alexander Litvinenko on the streets of London? If it is, are we any better by targeting Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin in Syria.

I believed we were better than this. I still think that should be our aspiration.