Just Wars and Justified Wars

Nicholas Kristof argues in Sunday’s New York Times, that an American intervention in Syria is the least-bad option. He makes an argument that embodies “just war theory” – bellum iustum – thoroughly surveyed and summarized by Neta C. Crawford (excerpt):

In sum, although just war theory has evolved, its key elements remain consistent. War is just if the cause and intention are just: namely, self-defense and the promotion of peace. War should be a last resort; it should be undertaken by competent authorities only if there is a possibility of success and if the overall good of the war will outweigh the harm it does. War must also be con- ducted justly: unnecessary violence should be avoided, and non- combatants should not be deliberately targeted.

But America’s intention is not just. At least not by the metric stipulated by Kristof or (most) just war theorists. As Kristof sees the story, it is America’s moral duty to help the abused and blighted:

If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?

Indeed, if this was President Obama’s principal charge for war I might have been on the fence. Claims that America cannot help are very unfounded. If the world’s largest army better funded than the next infinity combined cannot stop one pathetic dictator in his tracks and halt a civil war, I do not know what it can do. But the domestic, political, economic and, most importantly, human costs of that are too high to maintain. More likely we will engage in a stripped down mission focused primarily on keeping our threats credible and “maintaining international norms” – whatever the hell this is. (In reality, the administration’s intentions likely includes a more complex understanding of international relations with the Middle East. No doubt this does not principally concern the welfare of Syrian people per se) The life and liberty of the Syrian people will play no role in the calculus for war design and, hence, when there emerges a future tradeoff between political needs and Syrian success, we will always choose the former: for we have demonstrated that America’s threats are credible.

There is a deeper reason why intervention is not just. Here’s Crawford:

Jus ad bellum also contends that war must be the last resort, which entails a search for options other than the use of military force, and the patient application of the nonmilitary methods that might be successful. Force becomes acceptable, in this view, only when other methods will not work. The criterion is clear, but deceptively so. How can we know that all options were tried before force was used?

Sometimes it is clear that war is the last resort. Though I have to hark back 1861 to think of an example to this effect. The reason we definitely do not know that this is a war of last resort today again goes back to Obama’s stated intention of maintaining international norms and credibility. Credibility requires that once Assad crossed the “red line”, America attack promptly. Not in ten years. And certainly not after onerous diplomacy. So we can be somewhat certain – given the incentives and stated objectives of the Obama administration – that non-military action was not sufficiently pursued.

Most importantly, as Crawford accepts, just war requires a likelihood of success. Not the best chance of success, as Kristof suggests. Not a possibility, but a probability. And this has not been demonstrated by the administration or its unholy alliance with war hawks – one in which humanitarian journalists like Kristof do not belong. Extraordinary actions require extraordinary evidence.

Kristof makes a good case that Obama is logical in his case for war. That makes it justified, not just.

1 comment
  1. Nick Zbinden said:

    > Most importantly, as Crawford accepts, just war requires a likelihood of success.

    That is point that does not get made otften enought! It does not follow that if you dont like something you must do something. I dont like like a lot of things but I dont do anything about a lot of them. Because I dont know if the effort is worth it.

    America has showend that they can not ‘export freedom and stability’ or anything like that. In all likelyhood they will only replace one regime with another, or stay there for ten years and making the economy into a leech that completly fall appart when they leave.

    I would suggest this nice short book far a theoretical and emerical analysis of that exact problem:


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