Can the looming participation of the US in Syria's vicious fighting be regarded as a "just war"?
You know what they say: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
The American people have learned the hard way that US politicians in both political parties tend to passively defer to what the “experts” in the defense and intelligence sectors advise doing, often to the detriment to the country and to our standing in the world.
The prime example of this is the reckless way the politicians accepted, without sufficient questioning, the assertion by military and intelligence experts that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq – and that this justified launching a full-blown war against that country that lasted nearly a decade, cost an estimated $1.7 trillion and the lives of 4,500 US soldiers.
If there is a sense of déjà vu overwhelming the country at the moment, it’s because the drum beats of war against Syria sound eerily similar to the drum beats of war against Iraq.
The big difference, however, is that Saddam Hussein was likely a far greater mass murderer than Assad... and George Bush actually went out of his way to secure the legal authority for an attack from both the US Congress (including virtually all Democrats), most of our allies and the entire United Nations Security Council (unanimous Resolution 1441).
The one government he couldn’t persuade was the Vatican: Pope John Paul II remained steadfastly opposed to the attack on Saddam Hussein... just as Pope Francis today is steadfastly opposed to escalating a civil war into a wider regional conflict that could engulf the entire Middle East.
The reason is simple: Under international law and the principles of just war theory, there is little justification for the US government to attack a sovereign country in the midst of a civil war... especially when both sides in the conflict have been accused of horrendous atrocities.
1. It is not an act of self-defense: Syria has not launched a military attack against any US forces. It is engaged in a bloody civil war, as the US has been in its past; and the US has no mutual defense treaties with Syrian rebels... some of whom are Islamic fundamentalists, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, who are accused of such war crimes as torture, summary executions and even cannibalism.
2. The US does not have the legal authority to wage war against Syria unilaterally: No less an constitutional scholar than Barrack Obama said, in a 2007 interview with the Boston Globe, that “the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” On September 4, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that any military strikes against Syria would be illegal unless done in self-defense under the UN charter or unless approved by the UN Security Council.
3. There is some doubt about a reasonable expectation of success: The Daily Mail reported recently that the Pentagon, in a secret memorandum prepared for Obama in early 2012, estimated it would require 75,000 ground troops to secure Syrian chemical weapons and that air strikes alone would not do the job.
4. Military strikes should always be the last, not the first, resort: Luis Moreno Ocampo, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, insists that there are numerous diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives that have yet to be even considered, let alone attempted.
5. The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to a new war in the Middle East: A Washington Post/ABC News poll released September 2 found nearly 60 percent of Americans opposed to military strikes against Syria... while a Pew Research Center poll, released the same day, found that 48 percent of adults are against military strikes while only 29 percent are in favor.
6. There is a very strong likelihood that an attack against Syria will produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated. Even the “pro-war” Wall Street Journal admits that an attack against Syria risks “triggering a bloody escalation”: “If the regime digs in and uses chemical weapons again, or launches retaliatory attacks against the US and its allies in the region, Mr Obama will come under fierce pressure to respond more forcefully, increasing the chances of full-scale war...” A worse-case scenario would be the involvement of Iran, Israel and other Middle Eastern states that could even, under certain conditions, involve nuclear weapons.
Concerning the last criterion, proportionality, Pope John Paul was surely prescient. While advocates for the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 said it would be a “cake walk,” over in 24 hours with minimal loss of human life, the reality was quite different.
Observers disagree about the numbers, but the number of Iraqis killed in the Iraq War ranges from 110,000 (Associated Press) to as high as 600,000 (the Lancet). The Iraq Body Count Project estimates between 110,937and 121,227 civilian deaths.
That’s an awful lot of “collateral damage,” as the generals like to call children blown to bits by their cruise missiles and drones.
On a purely practical level, moreover, lobbing a few cruise missiles at Syrian targets won’t have any significant impact on the civil war itself. If anything, it could well only strengthen Assad’s position. It’s purely political theatre, an act designed for Obama to “save face” after he imprudently declared a “line in the sand.”
That’s why critics rightly suspect that the cruise missiles will be only the first stage... and that, despite Obama’s promises to the contrary, the cruise missiles will inevitably be followed by American “boots on the ground.”
The bottom line: The American public is sick of war. No more US teenagers should die so Obama can “save face.”
As Time Magazine put it, Obama was elected, in part, to put an end to the era of perpetual warfare that George Bush and the neo-cons foisted upon the American people.
Yet now, Obama, once the opponent of “stupid wars” who insisted that the president must ask permission of Congress before launching military strikes, seems to believe that his status as commander-in-chief gives him the right to execute without trial anyone, anywhere in the world, including US citizens, the CIA deems maybe a possible terrorist.
The American people are finally waking up.
Just as they have been outraged to discover the US government is spying on its own citizens to an astonishing degree, so, too, they are no longer willing to give the politicians and generals the benefit of the doubt when it comes to war.
They are asking hard questions this time... and the politicians and generals don’t have ready answers.
Robert Hutchinson, a veteran travel writer, studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved to Israel to study Hebrew, and earned an MA in Biblical studies. He writes frequently on the intersection of religion and popular culture at http://roberthutchinson.com/.