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.
And this is precisely what has been missing from the Obama administration’s Syria policy: a strategically and morally defensible definition of the end being sought. Now, the refusal to define the appropriate end — a Syria (in whatever form) safe for its people, posing no threat to its neighbors, and detached from the evil purposes of both the Iranian regime and various jihadists — has led to the absurd situation in which the goal of U.S. policy has been reduced to the defense of a “norm,” which in this instance is the up-market term for a taboo (albeit a useful taboo). Moreover, it is now proposed, the defense of that useful taboo will be achieved in de facto alliance with Putin’s Russia, long one of the chief international obstacles to getting traction on WMD-proliferation issues around the world.
Furthermore, because the administration cannot bring itself to define a reasonable goal for what every serious analyst knew a half-decade ago was going to be a fractious and potentially explosive Syria, it cannot define morally and strategically appropriate means to respond to Assad’s crimes and depredations. The president has lectured that the United States military “doesn’t do pinpricks.” But the day before the president said this in his recent address to the nation, a senior administration official explained that what we were about to do was like taking away Assad’s spoon and forcing the Syrian dictator to eat his Cheerios with a fork. It’s debatable whether that formulation was more degrading to American honor and prestige than Secretary of State Kerry’s assurance that what America would do would be “unbelievably small.” But however one comes down on that question, the point should be obvious: Absent serious ends, there can be no serious consideration of means. There can be tantrums. But tantrums, however packaged as righteous anger against gross violations of human rights, are not policy. Nor, many would suggest, do serious people conduct the statecraft of a great power by spasms of violence aimed (at least in part) at shoring up a leader whose credibility is crumbling because of his own imprudence and his own incapacities as both strategist and tactician.
Thus, from within the just-war way of thinking, the current pause, created by John Kerry’s slip of the tongue (if that is what it was) and Vladimir Putin’s seizing the main chance to reassert Russian clout in world affairs, is an opportunity to start over again. And if there are any adults left in Washington in positions of authority, both legislative and executive, it is precisely a root-and-branch reconsideration of Syria policy, as to both ends and means, that they will facilitate: in congressional debates; within the administration; in conversations between the administration and the Congress; and in the broader public debate.
There is no good answer, strategically or morally (and the two are connected), to the question of means — including the use of armed force against the Assad regime — until there is clarity and agreement on ends. That discussion has been precluded by the administration’s dithering on declaring regime change in Syria its goal: an exercise in self-delusion and incompetence that, among other things, led to the further fragmentation of the anti-Assad opposition and the entry into the lists of various jihadist groups. That lethal mess has, in turn, led more than a few to say, “A pox on them all — let these awful people sort themselves out and we’ll deal with whoever is left standing.” But that is neither strategically wise nor morally sound. So whatever adults may be left in Washington will face the fact that the admittedly difficult task of constructing a long-term policy for Syria is the first order of business.
And that will remain the case even if, as might happen in these bizarre circumstances, some kind of deal is cobbled together in Washington, Moscow, Geneva, the U.N., and Damascus by which the administration can declare victory in beginning the dismantling of Assad’s chemical WMDs — a claim that we should trust (to borrow from Dean Acheson to Harry Truman) “as much as you would trust a rattlesnake with a silencer on its rattle.”
As for the question that has been put, perhaps temporarily, on the back burner — Is a military strike against Syria a prudent use of American power, given the Assad regime’s use of chemical WMDs to murder more than a thousand innocents? — there is no unilateral answer to be found in the just-war tradition. Some scholars and analysts with extensive knowledge of the tradition and of international politics would say yes, given the gravity of Assad’s crimes; those mounting this argument are often far more serious in their reasoning and argumentation than the administration. Others, myself included, would say no, because of a thoroughgoing skepticism about the administration’s current ability to connect such an action (deserving of retribution as the Assad regime is) to a morally and strategically defensible goal. Reasonable people, well versed in the just-war way of thinking and in a sober analysis of international realities, can and will disagree on this specific question of prudential judgment. But those same reasonable people can also agree that a fundamental recalibration of U.S. and allied goals in Syria is the absolute prerequisite to prudent policy in the future — including the future that is next week, and next month.
And while the adults, taking lessons from the just-war way of thinking, are reconfiguring the argument in the weeks and months ahead, they will also remind the American people of some hard, home truths: that isolationism, either classical or neo-, is both strategically dangerous and morally unworthy; that a great power cannot lead from behind, especially by groveling from behind; that what seems to be, as Neville Chamberlain infamously put it in 1938, “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing” can set off world conflagrations; that maneuvering for partisan political advantage in as dangerous a situation as this is frankly unpatriotic; and that, as the inscription on the fountain at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall puts it, “freedom is not free.”
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.