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Chemical Weapons Redux

The use of chemical weapons evokes a visceral reaction in us, though I’m a bit puzzled as to why this should constitute a “red line” while tearing bodies apart with more conventional weaponry is somehow deemed more acceptable.  At the end of the day, dead is dead, and the pain of having a limb blown off is probably not significantly less than the burning caused by exposure to poisonous gas of one sort or another.  The legal and moral frameworks created to regulate violent conflict can all seem a bit surreal, as if the veneer of law and morality can somehow protect us from human or divine judgment.  Even “just war” theory begins with the foundational principle that there is a moral presumption against war.  War is the exception, not the rule, and is permissible only within the scope of very restrictive criteria. 

The Syrian regime’s likely use of chemical weapons against its own population has brought this issue back to the fore, displacing even the repeal of “Obamacare” as the main topic of conversation in the House of Representatives.  Now that the red line appears to have been crossed, what to do?  Theologians will parse whether the criteria for “just war” have been met.  But perhaps a more relevant framework is suggested by a doctrine established at the United Nations in 2005 called the “responsibility to protect” or R2P.  Beginning with the premise that “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” the doctrine draws the following implications for the international community:

“The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means. . . to help protect populations.  In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council . . . on a case by case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations. . . .”

The doctrine of R2P goes on to identify six conditions that form the threshold for military intervention.  How does the President’s proposed military strike in Syria measure up? 

  1. Is the threat a serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings?  This seems pretty clear.  In all likelihood chemical weapons have been used to kill, injure, and terrify civilian populations in Syria. 
  2. Is the main intention of military action to prevent human suffering or are there other motives?  Here things get murky, for the arguments include such things as defending America’s reputation, or defending the credibility of the international community, or making a clear statement to Iran, or calming an anxious ally in Israel.  Protecting innocent civilians may achieve the threshold for military action.  Defending national political or diplomatic credibility does not.
  3. Has every other means been taken into account?  In other words, is this truly a last resort?  The President says yes.  Absent other obvious solutions, it’s hard to argue with him on this.  That said, the hermeneutic of suspicion ought to be employed given our history in the Middle East over the last decade.
  4. Is the action authorized by the appropriate body?  The President’s referral of this to the Congress may make sense in American politics, but R2P clearly lodges authority in the United Nations.  The fact that a member of the Security Council is likely to stand in the way of authorization for a military strike is no real excuse for ignoring the international body charged with R2P.  If we have time to present our case to Congress, we have time to present it to the Security Council.  Ignoring that body only diminishes and undermines the effectiveness of the United Nations with potential dangers for years to come.
  5. Are the minimum necessary military means applied to secure human protection?  The President is asking for the power to make a very limited military strike.  On the one hand this is a relief.  On the other, this limitation risks turning the military action into a political and diplomatic statement only, not a meaningful vehicle to protect human lives.  In this case, more rather than less might be required to deter Assad.  In only authorizing what is politically palatable, we risk doing little that’s useful.
  6. Finally, is it likely that a military strike will succeed in protecting human life, and are the potential consequences certain not to be worse than no action at all?  Any military strike in congested population centers where chemical weapons may be located seems sure to kill and injure innocent civilians.  Military strikes are never truly “surgical.”  Assad’s ability to continue to inflict suffering on his people will not be significantly eroded.  Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition may well be strengthened.  Iran may be tempted to take a more overt role in support of Assad.  Other states may choose to intervene.  Sectarian lines may be sharpened.  The refugee crisis is likely to grow.  The civil war will continue unabated.  Of particular interest to Christians, almost every Christian leader in Syria and the surrounding region has argued against a strike, fearing further vulnerability of their already endangered communities.  They are clear:  Military strikes will make things worse for them.

A former US diplomat said in a lecture last spring that “Syria is the problem from hell we didn’t ask for.”   The President and Congress may be profoundly frustrated that they have such limited capacity to intervene in constructive ways in this problem from hell.  But frustration and personal or national reputation hardly justify amplifying the conflict with military intervention.  The specter of Iraq and its non-existent chemical weapons should not deter the US from tough action to protect innocent civilian life in Syria.  But “sending a message” and making a difference are two different things.  The doctrine of R2P suggests that policy ought to be based on the later, not the former.

John H. Thomas
September 5, 2013


People in this conversation

  • Guest (Joyce Skoog)


    Timothy D. Hoyt, Naval War College strategist andJohn Nicholas Brown chair for counterterrorism studies said if the US is intent on stopping the use of chemical weapons, it should target those specific units in the Syrian army that actually carried out the attacks on civilians. And that a war Crimes tribunal should be created through which those military officers who are believed responsible would be held accountable. We should print their names, freeze their bank accounts and go after any children they have who may be studying abroad - if they are in the US send them back to Syria. This seems to be to be a "just" response to the situation.

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