The march to war—or at least limited military strikes in Syria has a brief respite, while the United States waits to see if a diplomatic effort from Russia will persuade Syrian president Bashar Assad to place his chemical weapons under the control of the international community.
Here in the United States, President Obama has ruled out a wholesale invasion along the lines of Iraq in 2003, but insists that a limited military strike could still have the desired effect, saying “…a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.”
My question is this—why would we assume that limited strikes are going to make anyone, be it Assad, or whomever the next Middle East dictator in line at the chemical weapons factory is, have any second thoughts. A targeted strike is far more likely to hit innocent civilians than it is anyone who matters is the making of government policy. To believe that such a hit would change policy would be to believe in the good intentions and care that Assad has for his people. Does anyone seriously believe that?
Therefore, the only military option seriously worth discussing is that one that involves the complete removal of Bashar Assad. Here again though, does anyone want that? Polls suggest not. America seems to have learned its lesson from Iraq in 2003—we can always win such a fight, we can even do a lot of good along the way, but the mess that ensues is always worse than what was originally anticipated.
Ultimately, I do not see how military action against Syria meets the four key components of Just War doctrine, as outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here are the four pillars of this teaching, as outlined in #2309…
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- 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.
Since everyone interprets a threat differently, there is no universal conclusion that all people of good will are going to reach, but if you reduce the debate to those four component points–with the requirement of all four being met–I find it hard to see how anyone gets to a “Yes” conclusion on a striking Syria, whether the strike is small or large.
Let’s start with point #1. It’s one thing to acknowledge Assad has chemical weapons, and that he can wreak a lot of havoc. But is the damage “lasting”? Is it “grave”? To the Syrian insurgents they were used on would say they were grave, but if we extend the concept of “gravity” to be the survival of nations—including Israel—I would say this is much less certain.
Point #2 is still unfolding with the Russian diplomatic move, and if Obama does reach the point of ordering a strike, presumably this point would be met. The same goes for #3. The U.S. military is going to achieve the objective put out in front of it. Unfortunately, our national debate leading up to Iraq and in the early days of the invasion often reduced the whole of Just War doctrine to this single point.
It’s #4 that I think is the final nail against any sort of military invasion, and this is the lesson we should be taking from Iraq. The invasion of Iraq eliminated a lot of evils—Saddam Hussein’s rape rooms and torture chambers are gone, as is he. The suffering in Syria suggests similar good can be achieved.
But we saw in Iraq that deposing a government—even an evil one—invites chaos, and in the Middle East that means increased opportunities for terrorist recruitments, long stays abroad for the U.S. military and the strain on their families. And if our military strike is limited, we will likely only achieve an increase in suffering for Syrian citizens, while Assad continues to live in luxury with his closest advisers.
The only possible way I can get to “Yes” on this is if you assume both that a limited military strike would take out Assad himself, and then that his successor would be better. The first point is assuming we’ll hit a needle in a haystack and do something that’s never been achieved successfully before. The second point is just wishful thinking.
What it adds up to is that Pope Francis is right—take the military option off the table and let’s devote our energies to figuring out how the Syrian people could be rescued from a disaster in their home country.