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Would an Attack on Syria be a 'Just War'?

I wish Chuck Colson were still with us. With the nation on the verge of attacking Syria, I would love to talk to him about what’s going on behind the scenes at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

No doubt Chuck would have quickly turned the conversation to a topic that concerned him more and more in the wake of 9/11: the question of Just War.

In response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, would a U.S. strike against Syria be justified in light of the principles of Just War theory?

Just War theory helps Christians think about war within a Christian framework. From Augustine to Aquinas to the Reformers, Christian thinkers have generally agreed that for a war to be just, it must meet the following conditions:

The cause itself must be just — as well as the intention behind going to war. War must be waged by a legitimate authority. Force used in war must be proportionate to the threat and must not target non-combatants. War must be a last resort, and there must be a reasonable chance of success.

Let’s look at each of these in regards to Syria. And folks, I think you’ll see with me that there are no easy answers here.

First, is the cause just? The Obama administration is making the case that it must act to stop the Assad regime from using chemical weapons. That certainly does seem like a just cause.

However, as Gerard Powers at the Institute for Peace Studies at Notre Dame writes, just cause is “generally limited to defense against aggression.” In Syria, as in most civil wars, both sides are aggressors. In Syria, we would be taking sides, not acting against aggression.

That brings us to the question of intention. Sen. John McCain added language to a Senate resolution that would commit the U.S. to changing the momentum on the battlefield in favor of the rebels, which is highly problematic from a just war perspective.

Legitimate authority poses another tricky question. The administration points to the 1925 Geneva Protocol against chemical weapons and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention signed by 189 countries. However, as the Washington Post points out, there is no enforcement mechanism in these documents. And many countries, friend and foe alike, are questioning the legality of a U.S. attack without U.N. approval. (Of course, if the U.S. were acting in self-defense — which we aren’t — the U.N. wouldn’t be an issue.)

Now proportionality: According to Gerard Powers, “the overall destruction expected from war must be proportionate to the good to be achieved.” In that sense, launching missiles to destroy the Syrian military’s ability to launch chemical attacks seems reasonable. However, it also appears that the Syrians have begun hiding military assets in the midst of civilian populations. Aiming for those assets would put many civilian lives at risk.

And it’s possible that a U.S. “intervention” could lead to more chemical attacks, a regional war, or a jihadist takeover of Syria. As Rabbi Michael Broyde wrote in the Huffington Post, “In the real world, just war theory has to actually work, and not just theoretically work. Doing nothing is a moral option when doing anything makes a bad situation worse.”

Another question: Are we at the “last resort” stage? Have we exhausted all diplomatic and economic options? I don’t know that we have.

And finally, do we have a reasonable chance of success? Answering this one requires that the administration and Congress define what success is before we go to war.

Hard questions; no easy answers. That’s where we are. On the whole, my sense is that an American attack on Syria probably would not meet the standards of just war.

I wonder how Chuck would have seen it. How do you see it? Come to BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary, and share your thoughts. And while you’re there, please check out some important articles we’ve gathered on the topic of Syria, including a great piece by my BreakPoint colleague Roberto Rivera.

And in the meantime, I’ll pray for our leaders and for peace. And I hope you’ll join me.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

Publication date: September 9, 2013

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