Syria and the Moral Follies of Humanitarian Warfare

Can war be humane?

President Obama has made many arguments for his intervention in Syria. It’s necessary to enforce “international norms.” It will send Syrian President Assad a “message.” It would “degrade” Syria’s military capabilities and “deter” Assad from launching another chemical attack.

But in Stockholm the President raised the stakes. Responding to a question about how he could reconcile his call for military action with the peace message of that prize, the President said this: “. . . I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas . . . and we have the opportunity to take some action that is meaningful, even if it doesn’t solve the entire problem may at least mitigate [it], then the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.”

Thus now the moral argument has been joined. Presidents know that Americans want to believe that their military actions are “right”—morally justified, if you will. So Obama knows he’s tapping into something powerful. However, there is a lot of loose talk about what it means to use military force in a “moral” way. Indeed much of what is passed off as moral justifications for using military force for humanitarian purposes is intellectually shallow and deeply contradictory—as if there mere mention of “acting” or “doing something” settles the matter.

So what of the moral argument for action against Syria? Is it convincing? Or mere folly?


Moral argument obviously has a superficial appeal. What could be nobler than promising to sacrifice oneself for the sake of protecting innocents from slaughter? Never mind that, in this case, it would be someone else—namely, U.S. military personnel—who would do the job (and take the risk) for you. It still feels good to be doing the “right” thing. And never mind that innocent civilians, as a result of “collateral damage,” may be unintentionally killed in the name of saving them. It’s the intention that counts. Right?

Actually, no it’s not. It is not the intention that counts but what happens when one attempts to act on that intention. Aristotle says that we must measure the moral value of an act not by its intention, but by its consequences. We may very well intend to stop another use of chemical weapons by Assad, but sadly that is not even the purpose of the military mission as outlined by the administration. Instead it is to “take action … even if it doesn’t solve the entire problem,” as President Obama said. In the Oval Office, it’s the “action,” not the consequences, that counts.

But what if the action doesn’t even intend to “solve the problem?” It’s one thing to fail for trying, but what if not succeeding is not even the objective? What can be the moral purpose of that?

There really isn’t one. If you add on top of that the absurdity of killing “innocent civilians” as collateral damage, then you truly have a questionable moral action.


Philosophers for centuries have thought about the moral implications of war. The most prominent theory is the “just war” doctrine that establishes the right standards for conducting warfare. These are well known. The cause must be “just;” likewise the “authority” overseeing the action must be “just” as well; force should a measure of last resort. There must be a probability of success, plus an appreciation of the proportionality of cost.

Military action against Syria meets some of these criteria. I suppose you could say the cause is “just,” even if it is inappropriate strategically. As for “just” authority, that would normally require authorization by either the United Nations Security Council or the U.S. Congress. The first is not going to happen, and we’ll see about the latter. Proportionality is likely to be within an acceptable range. Obama promises a very limited use of force, even though it actually may be too little too late.

It’s the probability of success where military action gets into moral trouble with the just war theory. It’s clear the President is more interested in limiting the action than achieving success. Indeed it’s unclear exactly what the measure of success would be. “Degrading” a few military targets is not likely to deny Assad his chemical-warfare capability. In fact, the administration has made clear that attacking chemical sites has been taken off the table because of fear of contamination.

Why does this matter? Because even a small military strike will kill people. We had better have a very sound reason—which includes a clear definition of success—before we use that force. Indeed, the high risk and cost of human life requires serious thinking about the consequences as a matter of moral conscience.

There’s another consideration. The highest purpose of American power is first and foremost to protect the security and freedoms of Americans. We should not go about abusing the freedom and security of other nations in the process, but protecting our freedoms is why we put the federal government together in the first place. It’s also why we spend billions of dollars to build a military force.