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“Just War” Theory and Intervention in Syria

“Just War” Theory and Intervention in Syria

Would the “Just War” doctrine justify U.S. military action, and what is America’s moral responsibility? Religion News Service asked a panel of theologians and policy experts. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls for “human intervention.”


The just war tradition is based on a series of arguments to be tested before using force against another population. Legitimate and competent authorities must logically argue that the use of force will end or limit the suffering of a people and these forceful actions are the last options after all diplomatic, social, political, and economic measures have been exhausted. – Stanley Haurwas, Professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School

“Just war” arguments for a military intervention in Syria need to consider the problem of no action by the international community, which can increase civilian suffering and validate the actions of an abusive government. These discussions need to study the problems of intervening and limiting the force against military institutions and how civilians will be protected in the midst of the intervention and post intervention. – Qamar-ul Huda, Senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace

Jewish traditional just war theory can certainly be used to justify military intervention in Syria both to topple a dictator and to save the lives of those without guilt. But even more needs to be noted. The Jewish tradition avers that it is wrong to stand by while one’s neighbors blood is shed (and while that biblical verse does not directly apply for a variety of technical reasons), its ideals certainly ought to guide us. When the lives of innocent people are at stake, all people should do whatever they can to save those lives, even if this means that the lives of the guilty will be lost.

Of course, if there is any lesson in modern times, it is that the theory of just war in any religious or legal tradition can not only be evaluated based on the theory, but also based on the likelihood of success. A proper application of just war theory can produce a situation in which good people apply just and lawful force to a bad situation and make it much worse, both in theory and in practice. – Rabbi Michael Broyde, Professor of law and senior fellow, Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion

My problem is that I don’t see why this kind of chemical attack matters so mightily when 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria already. It seems to me that you’ve had massive attacks on civilians — with the world standing aside — that should have been the reason for intervention. But there’s also a question of proportionality and success, and I think that there are good reasons to think you might make things worse by a military attack….

I just don’t see why the particular (chemical weapons) attack should justify intervention at this point, especially if it’s just a rap on the knuckles to remind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now if the chemical attacks were to become a pattern there would be good reason to intervene. But for one occasion, it seems to me that it doesn’t weigh up compared to those who should have been protected and haven’t been, and those who still need protection. I just don’t understand. It seems to me you need a strategic objective, which doesn’t exist, and therefore just war norms don’t apply. – The Rev. Drew Christiansen, Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College reports on comments by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

The crisis in Syria needs to be resolved through “human intervention, not military intervention”, AFP quoted the Nobel peace laureate as saying on Wednesday.

He also said that United Nations inspectors should be given more time to complete their investigations.

“UN chemical weapons inspectors are on the ground in Syria, but need more time to finish their work,” Tutu noted.

“We need to talk, to avoid further bloodshed, not to fight,” he added.


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More and more I am dismayed at ECUSA’s silence on the impending, seemingly inevitable attack. I can’t help but think that if it were GWB instead of BHO who were insisting on his ability and willingness to attack Syria over the objections of the international community, Congress, and the domestic electorate, 815 would be screaming bloody murder by now.

Bill Dilworth

Gregory Orloff

To that, Geoffrey, I would offer the observation that “just war theory” has not been the only Christian thinking on warfare. It also includes such alternatives as total pacifism (Hippolytus of Rome deemed that one must resign from the military before being baptized, and Martin of Tours refused to fight as an early “conscientious objector”) to a lesser-of-two-evils-in-some-cases-but-still-a-sin line of thought (Basil of Caesarea would allow soldiers in a defensive war to stand in the eucharistic assembly rather than among the penitents in the narthex, but barred them from communion for three years, “because their hands are not clean”). Early followers of Jesus were very concerned about being involved in even accidental bloodshed as a contradiction of gospel nonviolence and its command to love neighbor and enemy.

Geoffrey McLarney

“Just war” doctrine is in the main a question of historical theology. The total warfare we know today does not meet Augustine’s criteria.

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