First, I would just like to note that I am honored to be a part of the founding team of the Just Security blog and look forward to engaging with colleagues and readers throughout this effort.  As one additional bit of housekeeping before I get going on substance, I’d like to thank my able Research Assistant, Justin Iverson, for his help in support of this post, and go ahead and thank him now for help on future work in the pipeline.

In the weeks leading up to the blog launch, Syria has occupied much of our attention.  At present, we stand in the midst of a robust multi-dimensional effort led by the United States and Russia to bring about a diplomatic resolution to a looming U.S.-led military confrontation with Syria.  Even though the Syrian civil war has been raging, U.S. escalation was precipitated by credible reports of the use of chemical weapons by elements of President Assad’s forces.  President Obama and his advisers have consistently indicated that use of chemical weapons represented a red line in Syria, and have acted in a manner consistent with those representations since credible allegations came to light.

Over these weeks, commentators have naturally debated related issues of evidence, tactics, analogues, consequences, legitimacy, and legality.  Consideration of military action is always grave.  It benefits from a variety of perspectives.  We need both a microscope and telescope.

One framework that keeps jumping out at me during the debate is classical Just War theory.  Syria presents a perfect opportunity to revisit ancient analysis.  As such, I offer a brief remembrance of Just War theory in an effort to return to provide some theoretical and historical context for Syria’s conduct and the U.S. reaction to it.

Just War theory has been a part of Western European culture at least as early as St. Augustine’s writings around 400 A.D., although some scholars trace it as far back as Cicero’s work, De Officiis.  Traditional Just War theory addresses the morality of armed conflict, either offensive or defensive, in terms of: (a) whether use of armed force is justified (jus ad bellum) and (b) what means of force are acceptable (jus in bello).  Put another way, one asks whether it is okay to take a swing and the other asks whether you’re fighting dirty.  I will put to the side for now the more modern contribution to the theory, jus post bellum, which addresses post-conflict resolution.

Use of chemical weapons in Syria represents a classic transgression of the norms of jus in bello governing the means of war.  According to war historians, during the Peloponnesian War there was a prohibition against burning olive trees during an invasion due to the unwarranted effect a slow-growth tree recovery would have on civilian populations.  So, too, formal international condemnation of the use of chemical weapons moved from a parchment barrier to an established international norm after the horror that typified the trench warfare of the First World War.

In the Boston Globe’s recent and helpful historical context piece on the prohibition against chemical weapons, Professor Richard Price traces the fallout of a war that saw over seventeen million deaths and involved chemical weapons on an industrial scale that some estimate constituted one-third of all munitions used.  Thus, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 solidified international condemnation of chemical weapons as a means of war.

In contrast, President Obama’s problem in justifying a strike against Syria is one that implicates jus ad bellum because his choice is not about “how” to fight, but “whether” or “on what authority.”  The problem lies in what actually justifies use of force by the United States in Syria.  The classic Just War problem of justification of military action facing President Obama has two components:  (1) factual merit (i.e., does Syria deserve punishment for violating a prohibited means of war?) and (2) legitimate authority to mete out punishment (i.e., what authority may undertake such punishment?)

President Obama and his team employ the following syllogism:

  1. Syria has used chemical weapons on its people.
  2. Use of chemical weapons is punishable under established international law and norms.
  3. Therefore, the United States may punish Syria.

This syllogism has two premises that have factual, legal, and moral merit.  As such, the first justification component—factual merit—does not seem to be too controversial, notwithstanding the Assad government’s less-than-convincing protestations.

However, the shift to the conclusion of the syllogism is more controversial:  factual merit neither logically requires nor conclusively justifies punishment of Syria by the United States.  As such, it implicates the second jus ad bellum war justification component:  legitimate authority to be the enforcer.  The problem for the Administration has been trying to justify unilateral action, or action by a modest coalition of the willing.  Authority for the United States to act in the mode of the enforcer in Syria implicates international and domestic legitimacy questions.

International legal and diplomatic principles recognize unilateral military action taken in the right of self-defense.  As such, we often see military strike justification debates follow these lines.  Such debates also become somewhat tortured as we move from traditional response-to-attack scenarios into preemptive strikes along the lines of President George W. Bush’s pre-Iraq invasion justification.  However, here, we have no self-defense argument being meaningfully advanced.

As for humanitarian intervention, legitimacy of the intervener becomes much more controversial.  In recent times, collective action with the imprimatur of an international organization–preferably action authorized by the UN Security Council–provides the international legitimacy to undertake offensive military action in the absence of strategic threat sufficient for self-defense.

This is where old realist versus idealist/internationalist traditions find themselves at familiar loggerheads.  Internationalists tend to be less solicitous of state sovereignty and more focused on human rights, such that humanitarian grounds may justify armed intervention.  However, they also tend to favor the sanction of international organizations as a necessary element of legitimacy.  In contrast, realists do not really have need for international legitimacy in the anarchy of the international context, but they often tend to be more skeptical of the strategic self-interest associated with humanitarian missions.

I would suggest that, notwithstanding internationalist impulses and good faith, the world tends to take on a realist cast from the vantage point of the Oval Office, especially when international institutions fail.  I think the President believes that an important international norm has been violated, international institutions and other countries have neither sufficient will nor means to act, so the United States is the only credible authority left.  That logic will satisfy some and be lacking to others, but it is a modern day exemplar of the type of analysis Just War theorists contemplated as they wrestled with the political and religious issues presented by armed conflict centuries ago.

Even if international sanction is not the touchstone of his analysis, the President still has meaningful domestic considerations that caution against politically unilateral action.  While the President has functional power to commit troops to war, there is still debate (or lamentation) over Congress’s moribund constitutional power to declare war and the ineffective operation of the War Powers Act as a check on presidential power.  In this case, without an imminent threat to the United States, the President wisely is including Congress in the deployment decision.

Perhaps the President’s sabre rattling constitutes the indispensable credibility necessary to spur meaningful diplomatic resolution.  Perhaps current diplomatic efforts will succeed, allowing the problematic jus ad bellum question facing President Obama and Congress to return to academic and historical recess.  However, one hopes that whatever resolution comes, it will further consign use of chemical weapons in bello to the dustbin of history.