With US President Obama now seeking authorization from Congress to attack Syria, the already spirited debate surrounding the advisability of such military action is bound to get even more lively in the coming days. To make sense of all the argumentation and rhetoric, I am once again going to apply an old method of reasoning about controversial questions most famously used by St. Thomas Aquinas, itself a a more formalized version of the Socratic method of seeking truth about a given topic by scrutinizing the authoritative opinions about that topic. What I hope this approach will do is make it all the more evident that we have no business intervening in Syria.
Should an Attack be Launched Against Syria?
Objection 1: It seems that it should because there is compelling evidence that the Bashir al-Assad government authorized the use of chemical weapons to kill 1,429 people in an assault that took place on August 21 in the suburbs of Damascus. Not only are chemical weapons a uniquely heinous instrument of war, insofar as they bring about a horrible death, they are also capable of killing large numbers of individuals with a single strike. Chemical weapons thus fall under the category of weapons of mass destruction whose possession and use it is the interest of all peace-loving nations to deter.
Objection 2: The August 21 deployment of chemical weapons is part and parcel of a systematic campaign by Syria’s government to destroy opponents of its despotic rule. As happened in that attack, innocent civilians and children have been casualties of the regime’s savage response to the Arab Spring protests that initially spread to Syria in the spring of 2011. For these reasons, the chemical strike represents a signal instance of the Syrian regime’s crimes against humanity. All nations have a responsibility to protect individuals from being victimized by humanitarian crimes, no matter where in the world these happen to take place. Bashir al-Assad, along with all of his enablers in the Syrian government, must be held accountable for ordering these atrocities.
Objection 3: Led by the United States, the Western world has continually asserted its unwillingness to tolerate not just the use of weapons of mass destruction, but also menacing efforts to develop and stockpile such weapons. If Syria is allowed to use chemical weapons with impunity, then the credibility of that threat will be undermined. Iran and North Korea will be emboldened in their quest to build a nuclear arsenal.
On the contrary, military force should only be used to protect citizens from foreign attack.
I answer that the state’s foreign policy ought to be primarily guided by the national interest — and by that I narrowly mean the preservation of the life, bodily integrity, liberty, and property of each of the individuals who reside within the state’s territorial boundaries. Even if definitive proof should eventually arise that Bashir al-Assad authorized the chemical attack, that is part of a civil war in which he is engaged amongst supporters of his government and various groups aiming to depose him. No matter who ultimately emerges victorious in this conflict, those living thousands of miles away will not in any tangible way have their personal safety and possessions affected. The inviolability of Canada’s borders does not stand or fall on whether the Syrian National Council gains power or Al-Assad’s Ba’athist party regime keeps it. At best, events in Syria might impact the price of oil, but influencing that is hardly a rationale for military action, especially as there are so many alternative sources of energy that can be secured more peacefully.
To some, this will seem a terribly selfish and hardhearted approach to foreign policy. No self-respecting nation, they say, can stand by as a foreign government slaughters its own people. But anyone even vaguely familiar with history knows that states commit such crimes on a shockingly regular basis. Were we to always intervene every time a government somewhere in the world violated its citizens’ most basic rights, we would quickly stretch our resources.
Not only that, it would stretch the sympathetic capacities of human nature. It is a psychological fact that we tend to be more concerned about individuals and events spatially close to us than those far away. A little girl who goes missing in our neighbourhood emotionally impacts us more than a thousands deaths in another continent. Distant occurrences only affect us when they are unusually striking and vivid, and even then only for a relatively short time. This firmly ingrained mindset is hardly the foundation upon which to sustain the long-term commitment often necessary to truly better conditions in distant lands.
Reply to Objection 1: As the Cold War proved, a nation can successfully deter another from attacking it with weapons of mass destruction by threatening to respond with a similar counter-attack. It must simply be able to show that it can sustain a first strike with enough remaining forces to launch a retaliatory assault. Attacking Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons does nothing to demonstrate this second strike capacity. The U.S. and its allies will still be able to strike back against anyone that deploys weapons of mass destruction against them whether or not action is taken against Syria. From a national security point of view at least, deterrence is not an issue.
Reply to Objection 2: States have no global responsibility to protect. This is a merely fashionable doctrine with no basis in any sound theory of government. The best way to think about this is to view the state as an agency to which the people have agreed to cede some of their liberties in return for certain goods and services. Now one could definitely envision people agreeing to give up some of their freedom in exchange for the protection of their persons and property. But one can hardly imagine more than a small minority of individuals signing up with an agency that obligated them to potentially risk their lives, and those of their loved ones, for the sake of every single individual on the planet.
Reply to Objection 3: Government officials ought not, in the first place, be issuing threats to other countries for things that do not implicate the national interest, strictly construed.