The Adults’ Debate on Syria
A brief moral and strategic outline

A Syrian couple grieve for their child, killed in a suspected chemical weapon attack.


George Weigel

Might moral theology, in the form of the venerable just-war tradition of moral reasoning, point a path beyond the fantastic mess that is American policy toward an imploding Syria — a fiasco created by the Obama administration’s dangerous combination of ideological besottedness, fecklessness, and mind-boggling incompetence?

The question is not as odd as it may seem at first blush. For the better part of 1,500 years, the just-war tradition — initially developed by such sophisticated thinkers as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas — has provided a framework for collaborative deliberation about ordering various means (armed force and other instruments of political power) to morally worthy and strategically sound political ends. And as the disconnect between appropriate ends and appropriate means in Syria has become a chasm, thanks to an administration that has maneuvered itself into a situation in which Bashar Assad’s principal supporter and facilitator — Vladimir Putin — has become both Assad’s potential savior and the de facto chief strategist of the United States, some clear thinking about ends, means, and their essential relationship is a necessity.

At the outset, it’s important to get straight what is so often misunderstood in debates over whether this, that, or the other proposed military action, or war, is “just.”

The just-war tradition is not a matter of moral algebra, providing clear and obvious answers to questions plugged into moral equations. Rather, the just-war tradition of moral reasoning is more like calculus: in this instance, a calculus aimed at illuminating prudential judgment. In the complex world of international relations, one cannot expect clear and indisputable moral answers to the conundrums of statecraft, save on the rarest occasions. Why? Because statecraft, and especially international statecraft, is not a matter of theoretical reason and its clarities, but of practical reason, which operates in a chiaroscuro world of varying degrees of gray. (And if you doubt the truth of that, consult the shade of Woodrow Wilson, the prime presidential practitioner of moralistic, as distinguished from morally informed and morally thoughtful, statecraft.) Thus prudence, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern” what is appropriate (i.e., the right goal) “and to choose the right means of achieving it,” is the preeminent virtue of the statesman. Imprudence, by contrast, can and frequently does make bad situations worse, as the present humanitarian and geopolitical disaster in Syria illustrates

If the just-war tradition does not, save on the rarest occasions, provide clear answers that virtually everyone will recognize as such, then what does it do? One of the most important things this way of thinking does is to suggest that the discussion of what to do will go off the rails if it begins with means; rather, serious consideration of what to do must begin with ends. Now it is certainly true that, as the cliché has it, the end doesn’t justify any means. But as a noted just-war theorist used to say, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” Means detached from ends are not serious, although they may be lethal. A measure of clarity about the morally and politically appropriate end being sought by those who legitimately bear responsibility for the common good — those who have what we might call moral compétence de guerre — is thus the absolute prerequisite to considering appropriate means intelligently.