On April 4, an attack on a Syrian town in Idlib province left more than 80 people dead. The evidence makes clear that Sarin gas was used, non-combatants were targets, and Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad ordered the attack. Four days later, the United States responded to Assad’s actions by launching nearly 60 cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base, where the sarin gas attack probably originated.
Commentators are divided about whether the airstrikes were justified, and the divide is not drawn neatly along partisan lines. On the right, critics such as Rand Paul and Andrew Napolitano opposed the strike, while John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Newt Gingrich supported it. On the left, Tim Kaine and Greg Shupak opposed it, while Fareed Zakaria and others supported it. A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll revealed that 66 percent of voters supported the airstrikes, while 24 percent opposed them.
Was the Syria strike justified?
In light of the controversy, American citizens should take a moment to evaluate the strike in light of eight classic criteria for determining whether or not a military strike can be carried out justly. From the information that has been released, citizens can be certain that five of the criteria have been met, but should question whether or not the other criteria have been met:
- Just Cause (yes): Did the United States strike in order to defend against an unjust aggression, or did it go to war merely to topple another nation’s leader, install a preferred political or economic system, or expand its own power? The strike was carried out against Assad, who used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against non-combatants.
- Competent Authority (yes): Was the decision to strike made by the ruler or ruling body that is responsible for maintaining that nation’s order and security? Yes. President Trump has limited but real authority to call for a military strike such as this one.
- Comparative Justice (unsure): Will the strike most likely lead to greater justice? This is difficult to answer. I am skeptical because Assad is engaged in a fight-to-the-death with ISIS; as bad as Assad is, ISIS is worse. We need to be careful not to accidentally make things worse in the process of trying to make things better.
- Right Intention (yes): Was the strike intended to restore the peace, or did our nation strike for the purpose of glorifying itself, enlarging its territory, or humiliating its opponent? The stated intention was to save innocent lives from future incidents in which Assad likely would have used chemical weapons against non-combatants.
- Last Resort (yes): Did our nation exhaust all realistic non-violent options (e.g. diplomacy, economic sanctions) before going to war? Assad has been warned many times, but to no avail.
- Probability of Success (unsure): Did our nation determine that it has a realistic hope of achieving victory? This is difficult to answer. I am skeptical because there is no evidence of a clear goal. In fact the one goal that has been clearly articulated—President Trump’s declaration that this strike is “punishment” for using chemical weapons—is an illegitimate goal within a just war ethic.
- Proportionality of Projected Results (unsure): Has our nation determined that the anticipated results of the war are worth more than the anticipated costs? This is difficult to evaluate. On the positive side, President Trump opted for a low-risk, high-result strike. On the negative side, this strike could have the unintended consequence of strengthening the hand of ISIS.
- Right Spirit (yes): Did our nation strike with any spirit other than one of regret, or did it engage in conflict with a lust for power or delight in humiliating the enemy? President Trump gave no indication of any type of triumphalism, instead lamenting Assad’s use of lethal violence against non-combatants.
What should Americans take away from President Trump’s speech?
President Trump’s speech to the nation was revealing. He began by lamenting that Assad “choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” and concluded his speech by saying “God bless America and the entire world.”
It was good for the nation to see our President lament the atrocities. It was good for the global community to hear him wish God’s blessings not only upon our nation, but also upon the entire world. And it will be good for our nation and the world if the Trump administration is indeed developing a consistent foreign policy that is guided by just war criteria rather than merely pragmatic national interests.
How should a true patriot react to American military actions?
In a democratic republic such as the United States, it is our duty as citizens to be vigilant in regards to warfare. Based upon historic principles for just war, we should evaluate our nation’s potential and actual military conflicts, with an eye toward expressing our opinion to elected representatives.
We should do so with humility, knowing that we do not ever possess a full knowledge of all the factors at stake (considering that the military and intelligence communities do not, and usually should not, make all information public). We should do so with confidence, however, knowing that it is our responsibility as citizens to do so, and that our voice is valuable in the government’s decision-making process.