Just War Against ISIL?

Congress approved President Obama’s plan to expand military and counter terrorism actions to degrade and defeat ISIL. ISIL has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to United Nations investigators, deliberately targeting and killing thousands of civilians.  Many in Congress and the public call for the U.S. to further bomb ISIL, in order to stop their killing campaigns, to kill them so that they will not kill others, particularly civilians.  The Pope and other Catholic leaders have been criticized for their statements on the need to protect civilians and build a lasting peace for all in Syria and Iraq, especially persecuted minorities and Christians. Yet the Holy Father and the Holy See, as well as career military officers, are the voices of reason in these debates, repeatedly pointing out that bombing ISIL is not the same as building a lasting peace in the region; the U.S. cannot bomb its way to peace.  Only politics, dialogue, inclusion, and nonmilitary options can build sustainable peace.

ISIL and Syria’s deliberate targeting of noncombatants violates international law, as well as ancient moral codes about the use of force, known as Just War tradition (JWT).  But would expanded U.S. military strikes constitute a just response?

St. Thomas Aquinas never imagined a world of robot drones dropping hellfire missiles, or the use of chemical weapons that kill thousands of people in a breath, but these old moral codes can still provide guidance in modern warfare.  JWT is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” JWT holds that even during warfare we are still capable of moral behavior, and still obligated to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between realpolitik, which always allows war, and pacifism, which never allows war.

            Before entering combat there must be a just cause such as self defense and the protection of human life. Certainly the Iraqis and Syrians have the right to use force to defend themselves against the attacks of ISIL and of the Assad regime.  But do external actors such as the U.S., Britain, and others, have a just cause to militarily intervene to protect civilians in Iraq and Syria from ISIL as well as from their own brutal government?

Beyond just cause, a whole package of JWT moral criteria must also be met.  Only a right, public authority can enter into war, guided by the right intention of protecting peace and the common good. Force can only be used as a last resort, when success is possible, and the harms of war will not outweigh the reasons for going to war. During war, force must be discriminate and proportional.  Civilians must be protected, not targeted.  In discussing potential limited military targets, the Obama Administration shows attention to proportionality and discrimination.

The ISIL and Syrian cases are hard because they hit JWT on its growing edge, humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (or “R2P”).  Some just war thinkers propose that expanding just cause to include protection of civilians in humanitarian interventions should correspond with restricting right authority to only a right, public, international authority such as the United Nations, not a decision made unilaterally by a single state alone.  The Responsibility to Protect takes this approach.  R2P is a new international security and human rights norm, adopted in 2005, to address the international community’s failures to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  R2P notes that the state has the primary responsibility for protecting its own civilians from atrocities.  But if a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, as when the Assad regime perpetrates war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own citizens, then the international community has a responsibility to protect endangered civilians.  R2P and JWT both  prescribe non-military means be used first.  But if peaceful humanitarian and diplomatic means fail, the international community must be prepared to use collective force authorized by the UN Security Council.  Stipulating an international right authority is good in theory, to restrict states from defining military interventions as “humanitarian” that were more self-serving in nature.  But restricting right authority to the UN Security Council raises the bar for intervention in a way that is difficult to reach.  In practice it means usually only civilians in diplomatically isolated or pariah states could effectively claim a UN right to protection. For Syrians it has made international authorization near impossible over the past year, as the permanent members of the UN security council, such as Russia, promise to veto any UN Security Council motion for intervening in its ally, Syria.  Ironically, ISIL’s own brutality is today driving greater international consensus.  President Obama is asking the UN Security Council to act, but is conducting an expanded campaign regardless of the UN response.

Probability of success and comparative justice (the idea that more good than harm will come of intervention) are the hardest Just War criteria to meet in the ISIL and Syrian cases.  According to Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker as well as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, any military intervention may fail.  Dropping bombs will not build a lasting peace.  U.S. military intervention could make matters worse, according to General Dempsey.  “We could inadvertently empower extremists.”  Arming the locals can backfire.  ISIL wields US weapons–humvees, tanks, machine guns, and artillery– which they seized from the Iraqi military.  ISIL may be attempting to lure the U.S. into greater military interventions in Iraq and Syria, thus painting themselves as legitimately responding to foreign aggressors and occupiers of Muslim lands.

Just War Tradition attempts to limit war, but here lies the problem. Limiting war, however laudable and needed in containing ISIL, is not the same as building peace.  The U.S. has made this mistake before.  In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration invaded with little attention beforehand to the most basic aspects of how they would build peace after invading.  Military interventions can backfire, make things worse, and have unintended consequences.  There was no al Qaeda or ISIL in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion; the U.S. invasion created both.  Today, those who simplistically applaud military interventions against ISIL focus on the tactics of war, but not the strategies of peace. They weigh tactical, operational questions of military logistics, basing, and targeting, the how-to of military destruction.  But what sort of peace do we seek in Iraq and Syria and the Levant region? If a U.S. military intervention helped contain ISIL, who would govern these countries and how? Too often the U.S. engages in military magical thinking.  Yet the overwhelming predominance of the U.S. military power to destroy does not carry with it some magical power to easily create new political orders and institutions.  When 160,000 U.S. troops were fighting in Iraq, they were not able to create a stable, political order.  How will much smaller military operations achieve this now?  Peace must be built, with time, trust, and societal participation, as described in emerging Just Peace moral criteria.  JWT must be married to these just peace criteria.  Iraq and Syria show how much we need an expanded toolbox for building just peace.

About the author

Maryann Cusimano Love

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