Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his remarks regarding the potential use of limited air strikes in Syria and appealed to two basic justifications for a military intervention in Syria.
First, something akin to the United Nations’ “responsibility to protect” initiative, and second, America’s “values and interests.”
The U.S. government refused to intervene militarily for months but warned that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line.” During the months preceding the use of chemical weapons, more than 100,000 civilians were killed.
Chemical weapons kill people in a particularly agonizing way and have the potential to reach many innocents by way of its dispersion.
However, the numbers killed by such weapons have been a small percentage of those killed in this conflict. In short, if the responsibility to protect were the primary motivation for an intervention, it would have been employed much earlier.
It appears to me, then, that the primary motivation for the intervention is more about America’s “values and interests” than it is about a responsibility to protect. So what are these values and interests?
First, not allowing a country like Syria to ignore the words of the U.S. Syria violated the desires of the U.S. and, the argument goes, must be punished for it. This does not justify a military strike.
Second, the U.S. has an interest in the maintenance of the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. This interest has been repeatedly appealed to by Kerry, Obama and others.
The most prominent reason for such strikes would be to send a message to the rest of the world, especially Iran, not to use such weapons. However, there is no evidence that such an intervention will actually contribute to maintaining this norm.
Third, Kerry argued that a “culture of impunity” must not be created. This idea suggests that persons who violate human rights must be punished to deter potential future violators from emulating those who have not been punished. There is no evidence, however, that those who act to violate human rights at mass levels take such information into consideration.
Genocide and the mass violation of human rights are so far outside the scope of morality and legality that it is hard to imagine the people enacting genocide taking a cost-benefit analysis before engaging in their actions.
Indeed, Assad’s use of these weapons after being told that they were the red line not to be crossed is evidence that such considerations are not usually in play.
In addition, Kerry has made it clear that there would be “no boots on the ground” and that this would be a limited, targeted strike intended to make Assad stop using these weapons. However, there is no tangible measure of success here.
Would it be sufficient if Assad were to go back to killing civilians with more traditional weapons? This seems doubtful. If not, what would be the measure of the success of the mission?
Anything beyond Assad choosing different weapons to slaughter people would seem to require “boots on the ground.” In other words, this would be entering a war and Kerry said, “there is no ultimate military solution.”
In Just War theory, there are several criteria to be met for a war to be deemed just.
One is a “just cause.” If the primary justification for the intervention was the protection of innocent civilians this criteria would seemingly be met.
Calls for an intervention on these grounds have been made for months with almost no traction from the U.S. government.
This makes it seem doubtful that “responsibility to protect” is the primary criterion, and meeting this one criterion would not be sufficient to justify the strikes. Other criteria that need to be met are “a reasonable chance of success” and “proportionality of cost.”
It is hard to know if there is a reasonable chance of success since we have no clear picture of what success would mean. The recent history of U.S. intervention in the world raises legitimate doubts that this action won’t cause more harm than good.
It is also important to ask why the United States, which has not joined the International Criminal Court – the primary legal body in place to judge those who violate human rights – should lead the intervention.
The U.S. holds the largest stockpile of nuclear and chemical weapons in the world – and has used them in the past without any legal consequences. The hypocrisy rings loud in the ears of many around the world.
The U.S. does not have the international moral authority to police the world. The body that does, the United Nations, has not called for a military intervention.
The U.S. is in no moral or legal place to act under its own authority, and there is simply no moral justification for U.S. military strikes in Syria.
James W. McCarty III is a doctoral candidate in the ethics and society course of study at Emory University with a concentration in religion, conflict and peace building. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.