- The humanitarian case for military intervention is clear. Syria is a failed state, torn apart by some of the world’s most ruthless killers. As Pope Francis and his recent predecessors have said, when whole populations are threatened by systematic and widespread killing, the international community has a right and duty to protect civilians. The use of chemical weapons is an egregious act, but the airstrikes seem like an afterthought given the many, many equally egregious acts that were not considered worthy of response.
- Unilateral intervention, especially without Congressional authorization, is morally problematic. In order to guard against endless wars of altruism, the UN Security Council should authorize interventions in places like Syria. Since the Security Council, hamstrung largely by Russian intransigence, has proven itself incapable of acting in a responsible way in Syria, other collective bodies should act.
- Bombing is not a morally serious way to protect threatened populations. Because of the grave risks involved, bombing should not be about making statements or political points; it must be tied to a serious and viable strategy for protecting the Syrian people. The lack of a credible government or opposition in Syria makes it virtually impossible to have a serious strategy.
- For most of the past 14 years, the United States has bombed, fought, trained and armed the Iraqi government. Yet Iraq is as violent and unstable as ever. And Iraq is relatively easy compared to Syria. What are the realistic objectives of our military action in Syria? To defend civilians against ISIS? Against the Syrian government? Against all armed groups that threaten civilians? To rebuild a nation? If the latter, who would undertake the Iraq-style occupation and nation building that would be necessary, and what grounds do we have for thinking that would succeed any better than it did in Iraq?
There are no morally clear or clean answers to the moral conundrums the international community faces in Syria. The United States, in particular, faces a serious moral conundrum. U.S. policy has suffered a double moral failure: it was immoral to intervene in Iraq in 2003, and in the years since, its self-serving, misguided, incompetent and sometimes grossly negligent policies have failed the Iraqi people and contributed to the conflict in Syria. The first moral failure made the second more likely. These many years, many deaths, many billions of dollars, and many missteps later, we are tempted to say that we have done all we can do and wash our hands of the problem, letting Iraq and Syria be torn apart by their “ancient hatreds.” But that would be shirking our moral obligations, for the United States has become –voluntarily! – very much a part of those hatreds.
The more serious temptation at this moment is to do a very modest version of what we did in 2003: pursue a quick-fix military solution justified by best-case scenarios about the good that would be achieved – peace, freedom, and democracy for Iraq and the region. But that approach lacks the realism essential to any ethic of military intervention. Because past U.S. interventions helped create the current crisis, we have a moral obligation to act. Limited military intervention might be necessary. But without a serious effort to address the larger political, economic, and cultural dynamics – to engage in nation building in two countries torn asunder, it will be no more successful than it has been until now.