One criteria of the just war criteria is that the objective intention (or goal or purpose) has to be a legitimate achievable, typically understood as peace and stability. So we have to ask: what is the goal of this war? What is the purpose or end that the war seeks to achieve?
The Obama administration considers regime change a bad option. Assad is not a good guy, but many of the Syrian rebels are less than savory, with some having connections with al-Qaeda. So regime change is not the intention. The intention, then, is to send a message that use of chemical weapons is a moral absolute that must not be violated without some punishment (although it should be noted that, at this point, the independent team of UN investigators has not delivered its report).
Let's examine the logic here, using some basics from communication theory. Any sender of a message has to think about not just what they desire to communicate but what will actually be communicated based on the audience.
To whom is this message being sent? The entire nation of Syria? President Assad? To the people who will die as a direct result of US military action? To the people who will be affected by Assad's response to the US attack? If the message is being sent to President Assad, is it safe to say that he will receive the message we want him to receive and act accordingly? Or is it likely that, if he's already (allegedly) used chemical weapons, that an attack by the US will make more desperate and therefore more likely to use them again? If the chemical weapons were used by the rebels and not by Assad (as the Assad administration claims), will the rebels use them again in order to provoke more US attacks on Assad? Could there be traitors within the Assad camp who would order the use of chemical weapons without authorization in order to bring more US strikes? Is the message directed at other nations, such as Iran, and if so, is it morally acceptable to punish one country with no goal of stopping violence but merely to "send a message" to a different country?
What message is being sent? That killing civilians with traditional weapons will be tolerated, whereas chemical weapons are not? Do we send this message consistently? With reports of cannibalism by the Syrian rebels, should we attack them as well? How do we quantify the moral line that we've drawn in the sand? Are chemical weapons inherently worse than cannibalism, or if hundreds of people had been cannibalized while only one person had died because of chemical weapons, would we strike the cannibalizing side and ignore the chemical weapons? We should also ask: will this message make us look like hypocrites, given the US record of violating international law, treaties, and human rights in the war on terror? Is this message directed more at ourselves, to affirm that we actually do have a moral compass that draws the line somewhere? In that sense, would a strike on Syria be closer to the rebel's act of cannibalism, a symbolic act not meant to "accomplish anything" other than sending a message to Assad and his forces?
Is the stated intention of "sending a message" achievable and realistic? Giving the vague nature of this goal, how will we know if it's achieved. Goals like "taking back France," or "toppling Saddam Hussein's regime" at least have some basis in measurable, empirical reality. Is the message sent if the receiver of the message doesn't take from the message what we want them to? And if we know that it's highly unlikely that the receiver would actually hear what we want them to hear, is it morally acceptable to send the message anyway just for our own benefit, so that we feel better about ourselves? We also have to ask if sending this message is realistic. Given what we know about the situation in Syria, will our attempt to "send a message" be received in such a way that the players involved will change their course of action, or is it more likely that this could escalate matters? Would this provoke Syria to attack Israel? Would this make Assad more desperate and therefore more likely to use chemical weapons, so long as he knows that the US will only bomb from afar and not put troops on the ground (not that troops on the ground would solve the problem either)? Is it more likely that this message would be received or would US strikes escalate not only the fighting in Syria but potentially ignite and escalate more fighting in the Middle East?
In addition to questioning whether the goals of a limited US war on Syria, there are other elements of the just war criteria that come into play here:
- Legitimate authority. Can the President unilaterally decide to attack Syria without the approval of Congress? If not, then to do so would make this an unjust war, regardless of other factors.
- Last resort. How does this criteria apply here? Last resort implies that you are trying to accomplish something tangible, whether militarily or politically. But if we are simply trying to "send a message," what would have to precede military strikes to get that message across?
- Due process. The Obama administration has been saber-rattling well before any conclusions from the UN investigate team. I presume President Obama is relying on US intelligence. Unfortunately, however, the US intelligence community still does not have great credibility. The rest of the world has a right to be suspicious about the objectivity of those reports.
- Proportionality and prudence. As Pope Pius XII put it, "To have recourse to violent warfare it is not enough to have to defend overall against any kind of injustice. If the injury caused by warfare exceeds the injury suffered by tolerating the injustice done, one may be obliged to suffer that particular injustice." (from his Address to the XVIth Congress of the International Bureau of Documentation on Military Medicine [Oct. 19, 1953], Dicorsi e Radiomessaggi XV, 422). Is US action likely to lead to a decrease of violence or to an escalation of violence? The US is so militarized that we seem unable to recognize that military action in many cases provides no real way forward.
Finally, listen to this quote: "I didn't want to do this. I had to. We have to terrify the enemy, humiliate them, just as they do to us." That's Abu Sakkar, the heart-eating Syrian rebel talking about his act of symbolic cannibalism. He did it out of regretful necessity, forced to take action, and knowing that Assad needed to be sent a message. Unfortunately, his rhetoric sounds all too familiar.
If you've got thoughts on how action against Syria fits or not with just war criteria, I'd welcome them.