In the run-up to potential war with Syria, it may be useful to review the basic precepts of the classic teaching known as “Just War Theory.”
While this theory has been amended over the centuries, the basic criteria are clear. First, every war must have a just cause. This is usually defined as some sort of aggression, but there are exceptions. Most modern just war theorists, for instance, would agree that a state can intervene to prevent a genocide or perhaps balance a conflict in which a third party has already intervened.
War must be made by the proper authority. Essentially this means that war is made by sovereign states, not by private parties.
War must also be waged with the right intention. In the words of St. Augustine, war should restore the “tranquility of order” and not be for selfish gain.
Fourth, a just war must have a reasonable chance of success. Also, a war must be a proportional response to evil, meaning that it should not produce an evil greater than the one it fights.
Finally, war must only be a last resort. Naturally, there is always something else other than war that could be done. What we mean here is that at some point that “something else” just delays or denies the inevitable.
Just War Theory should not be looked at as a checklist, but rather as a guide to prudent statesmen and citizens as they consider the justice of an act.
In my opinion, the proposed war in Syria meets most of these tests, but fails others.
First, one could hold that the use of chemical weapons is itself the kind of act that “shocks the conscience” and demands action. This is President Obama’s argument which, while arguable, is plausible.
While I think the president is constitutionally required to get permission from Congress, Mr. Obama is acting as the duly elected executive of the nation, not in his private capacity. So he has rightful authority in the sense of the theory.
I take it for granted that Mr. Obama’s intentions are to protect the Syrian people against further chemical attacks. A war to help him “save face” would not be just.
The administration has done a poor job of telling us what success means in this case, but likely the mission has a reasonable chance of success.
The administration’s case is weakest on the last two criteria. First, is a bombing campaign really the proportionate response to a single use of chemical weapons? Second, it is telling that the administration has chosen war as the first resort, not the last. No sanctions. No diplomacy. The administration is waging an unjust war, one could argue, because it hasn’t even tried peace.
There are good people on both sides of the issue. But we must recognize that even limited strikes will kill our fellow humans, many of them completely innocent. This is not something to be entered into rashly or simply to maintain one’s “position in the world.” For these reasons, we should not, in my view, go to war in Syria.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own and do not represent those of Northern State University.