War, Morality, Syria, Libya

The above photo is of one of the exultant visits Hillary Clinton made to post-Qadhafi Libya in 2011

I am delighted that after a hiatus of more than a dozen years (in the course of which I was working mainly as a book publisher) I have now returned to the pages of The Nation, with this article about the return of Syria to the Arab League and the prospect this raises for radically de-escalating the civil war that has devastated Syria for the past 12 years, or even—inshallah!—helping this conflict toward an end.

I warmly invite everyone to read the whole of the Nation article! But toward the end I wrote this, which was a point I want to explore a little more deeply in today’s essay:

Especially since the end of the US-Soviet Cold War, many Americans have been attracted to the idea that our foreign policy should be based on morality. But the version of morality that’s most widespread in today’s America is worryingly vulnerable to the influence campaigns of parties that seek to entangle the United States in regime-change operations in various places. And it pays little heed to the long-existing wisdom that war itself is something that inflicts deep harm on everyone caught in its tentacles, and therefore that bringing a halt to an existing war is itself a deeply moral endeavor.

Regarding the “influence campaigns”, I had provided a lot more information (here) on the heavily funded influence (propaganda) campaigns that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others had maintained for many years in Washington DC, regarding Syria . Let’s hope those campaigns are now dialed back, or even pushed into a strongly pro-reconciliation mode!

In today’s essay, though, I want to dive deeper into the topic of “the long-existing wisdom that war itself is something that inflicts deep harm on everyone caught in its tentacles.”

The origins of ‘Just War’ theory

As a convinced member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), I am opposed to all wars and conflicts. This is definitely a minority position in a “Western”-dominated world in which the theory of “Just War” has been dominant for more than 1,500 years! But the original teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, were deeply pacifistic, and for more than 300 years the people who claimed to follow his teachings—the Christians—all followed those teachings. A few Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Brethren, still do.

Medallion of Constantine with Christian “Khi-rho” symbol on his helmet

Ah, but in ~313 CE something happened that deeply changed the relationship between Christian believers and the earthly powers. That year, the Roman emperor Constantine ended the persecution of the Christians that the empire had practiced until then, and shortly thereafter he decreed that Christianity would indeed be the religion of the empire. (He was reportedly acting under the influence of his mother, my namesake Helena.)

Gorgeous statue of Helena, because why not?

So now, Christianity was the religion of empire. That changed the nature of the religion, forcing its adherents to figure out anew their relationship to earthly power…

Roughly 100 years later, in 410 CE, the Visigoths sacked the city of Rome. This caused, obviously, great consternation throughout the empire (though Constantine had, back in his day, also established a new Eastern capital for the empire, in the former Byzantium; and it even got named after him.)

Theology nerd Augustine at his books

Anyway, after 410, sitting across the Mediterranean in “Hippo” in modern-day Algeria, the theologically nerdish bishop of the large local diocese, a guy called Augustine, wrote a book called The City of God in which he reflected on the meaning and lessons of the sack of Rome. In that work Augustine provided the first codification of the theory of a “Just War” that has remained dominant in Christian thought ever since. It was dominant, too, in the governance of a world order that from the 15th century until recently was came increasingly under the control of avowedly “Christian” West-European states and the empires they battled hard to build.

A quick romp through ‘Just War’ theory

Augustine’s JW theory divided the justice issues involved in war-making into two categories: Jus ad bellum addresses the justice issues involved in any decision to launch a war; Jus in bello addresses justice issues involved in how you fight the war.

Since the mid- to late 1800s, the in-bello principles have been deeply embedded in the whole corpus of what’s called “international humanitarian law”—the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, etc. The main principles involved are things like the need to work hard to avoid harm to civilians; to avoid damage to duly marked hospitals and ambulances; to give decent treatment to members of the opposing forces who have surrendered; and so on. These matters, grouped into “War crimes”, “Crimes against humanity”, and “Genocide,” form the main docket of the modern-day International Criminal Court (ICC). They are widely understood by and discussed within most Western media and are a major preoccupation of human-rights organizations like Amnesty, or Human Rights Watch.

The provisions of Jus ad bellum are far less widely discussed in the Western discourse, and have not been embedded in any international conventions or treaties since the Nuremberg Charter of 1945. At the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, the three types of crime tried were War crimes, Crimes against humanity, and Crimes against the peace. (“Genocide” had not yet even been defined.) The “Crimes against the peace” that were tried at Nuremberg and Tokyo directly addressed Jus ad bellum infractions. But thereafter, consideration and analysis of ad-bellum issues fell largely out of the international discourse. Perhaps because the major states of the world believed/hoped that the creation of the United Nations would render war-launching obsolete?

When the ICC was adopted through an international treaty in 2002, its docket did formally included a category titled “Crimes of Aggression”, but the states party to it could not agree on a definition of such crimes until 2010.

The main provisions of Jus ad bellum have, since the days of Augustine included these four principles:

  1. The military action in question should be a “last resort”, after all other means for resolving the conflict have been exhausted.
  2. This military action should be waged only by a “legitimate authority.” In most historical cases this was the duly constituted government of the nation involved, though since the creation of the United Nations the approval of the U.N. Security Council has also been required.
  3. The military action should be aimed only at re-establishing a just peace. Notably, ever since the major states of West Europe adopted the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 CE, undertaking a war with the intention of effecting regime change in another country has generally been deemed illegitimate. (You can read more about it here.) But we should note that at the same time the Treaty of Westphalia was bringing to an end the ghastly war that had ravaged continental Europe for the preceding 30 years, a handful of states perched on the Western end of that continent were already starting to build broad, trans-oceanic empires, in projects that involved the violent toppling of hundreds of local rulers throughout the Global South. Notwithstanding all those gross European-imperial actions all round the world, after 1945 the “non-interventionist” norms of Westphalia became fairly deeply embedded in the global-governance arrangements established in the U.N. Charter.
  4. There should be good grounds for believing that the military action in question has a reasonable chance of success in achieving its stated goal.

All these long-established principles by which, in international society, the launching of a war could be considering “just” are relevant and important; and we can see that the U.S. government has violated every single one of them, numerous times. For now, I just want to make two observations.

War inflicts harm!

First, all the Just ad bellum principles stem from a deep understanding that war is an activity with a huge potential for causing or inflicting harm. This is worth restating. In real life, war is not a video game! It is not something to be lightly chosen or played with. It is not a policy choice a leader might make for trivial reasons—such as Madeleine Albright’s childish plea that, “We have this huge military, so why can’t we just use it?” (By the way, I recently wrote about my experience of living and trying to raise a family in a war-zone, here.)

The fourth of the ad-bellum principles makes the point about the seriousness of any go-to-war decision particularly strongly. Even if all the previous three conditions have been met, a leader should not launch a war if he can’t demonstrate that this war has a reasonable chance of succeeding. This is huge. You have to think that Augustine, sitting in Hippo and writing at a time when the whole Roman Empire was still smarting from the Visigoths’ sacking of Rome, must have had a vivid idea of the huge costs that any war imposes on a society…

The fourth principle is thus, in general, a good corrective to anyone who, having run successfully through the checklist of the three preceding items, says Hey, let’s just go and do this thing! The fourth principle is a useful check on impulsivity. In particular, it should be a useful check on any “urge to humanitarianly intervene” such as has led the United States into various military regime-change projects from Bosnia to Kosovo to Libya to Syria.

The fourth principle pushes us to consider the effects of any decision to launch a war, not just the intention of the leader who does so. (Intentions, which for centuries were prioritized in Catholic church doctrine, are anyway always nebulous, changeable, easy to fake, and hard for outsiders to read…) And the effects of any war should be considered over a decent span of time. Is Bosnia any better off now than it was in 1992? Is Kosovo better than in 1999? Are the peoples of either Libya or Syria better off than they were in 2011, the year when Washington committed to launching/supporting regime-change projects in both those countries? Definitely in the case of both Libya and Syria, the two cases with which I am most familiar, the answer has to be a resounding No.

Then there are the cases of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq and all the terrible consequences that flowed from those two wars…

‘R2P’ and its disastrous effects in Libya

It would be a good exercise one day to go back and look at every one of the decisions the leaders of the United States have made to use military action, from 1776 on… And to judge all those decisions against the four principles of Jus ad bellum.

But for now, the second broad observation I want to make about Jus ad bellum is to note that in the modern era, many “Western” states, including the United States, started pushing for the inclusion in the operating principles of the United Nations a new concept, a “Responsibility to Protect” vulnerable populations (R2P), which explicitly set out to over-ride the principles of Just ad bellum.

At a World Summit in 2005, the member states of the UN unanimously adopted a document that established R2P as an international norm, based on the three pillars that:

  1. “Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity”
  2. States pledge to assist each other in their protection responsibilities
  3. If any state is “manifestly failing” in its protection responsibilities, then states should take collective action to protect the population.

In the third of these “pillars”, R2P explicitly over-rode the norm of non-intervention in the affairs of other nations that had been in place since Westphalia (and even more so, since the establishment of the United Nations.) It also completely disregarded the warning implicit in Principle 4 of the Jus ad bellum canon, namely that military action should only ever be launched if it had a good chance of leaving in place the “just peace” for whose cause it had been launched.

The only significant military action launched under the R2P doctrine was the NATO-led air and ground campaign in Libya that in 2011 toppled Pres. Muammar Qadhafi. In that case, the intervening countries had received an initial authorization from the UN Security Council to undertake some military action—but only as much as was necessary to “protect” populations in Eastern Libya that were deemed, based on fragmentary and as it turned out overblown “information”, to be under threat.

As we know, the NATO-led interveners then wilfully expanded their military mission to include proactively battling with Libya’s governmental forces; and they fairly speedily achieved the toppling of his government and grisly killing of Pres. Qadhafi himself. NATO leaders then gleefully exulted over his toppling. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s exultations “We came, we conquered, he died” were particularly tasteless.

Since 2011, Libya has not had a coherent central government capable of protecting any of the country’s populations. Strongmen and militia leaders have battled for control over different parts of the country; and human rights watch-dogs have even reported the emergence of slave-markets in several spots inside the country, exploiting mainly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa desperate to pass through the country on their way to Europe.

Regarding Jus ad bellum‘s Principle 4, we might say that the NATO military action in Libya did have a “reasonable chance of success” in removing Qadhafi; and it did remove him. But it never, ever had any chance of succeeding at “restoring a just peace” in Libya.

Accountability for Libya

The British parliament, to its credit, commissioned an official inquiry into what had gone wrong in Libya. When that official report (PDF) was issued in 2016, it was damning. Ben Norton summarized its findings thus:

  • Qaddafi was not planning to massacre civilians. This myth was exaggerated by rebels and Western governments, which based their intervention on little intelligence.
  • The threat of Islamist extremists, which had a large influence in the uprising, was ignored — and the NATO bombing made this threat even worse, giving ISIS a base in North Africa.
  • France, which initiated the military intervention, was motivated by economic and political interests, not humanitarian ones.
  • The uprising — which was violent, not peaceful — would likely not have been successful were it not for foreign military intervention and aid. Foreign media outlets, particularly Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya, also spread unsubstantiated rumors about Qaddafi and the Libyan government.
  • The NATO bombing plunged Libya into a humanitarian disaster, killing thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more, transforming Libya from the African country with the highest standard of living into a war-torn failed state.

It is worth underlining that in Washington, neither Congress nor any arm of the administration has ever undertaken anything analogous to the British parliament’s investigation  of NATO’s disastrous regime-change project in Libya.

Western interventions in Libya, and Syria

The whole of the British parliamentary report on Libya is worth reading. Or failing that, Ben Norton’s piece, which picks out the most important points.

Regarding the multi-faceted internal conflict that has consumed most of Syria for the past twelve years I would note the following:

  1. Many of the flaws in Western decisionmaking that the UK parliamentary report identified with regard to the Libyan “intervention” have also, certainly, been visible all along regarding the US regime-change project for Syria. Primarily, we can see that the Western leaders did not recognize the strong control that dedicated, violent Islamists exerted over the anti-government forces in either country, and when confronted with some evidence about this, they tried to hide it. Also, in Syria as in Libya, the well-funded “influence operations” aimed at Western capitals by deep-pocketed Gulf states like Qatar, the UAE, or Saudi Arabia, proved remarkably effective at maintaining support for the regime-change project.
  2. The decisions that the United States made in both cases were a sine qua non, without which any regime-change plans that other parties may have entertained toward Libya or Syria would never have proceeded.
  3. In Libya, the Western regime-change project “succeeded”, very speedily, in toppling Qadhafi. In Syria, for many reasons, the regime-change project did not succeed. Instead, Syria has been locked for twelve years now in a web of deep internal conflicts that also involve the activities of three outside powers that maintain uninvited (and hence illegal) hostile military occupations on Syrian land, as well as the continuation of the punishingly harsh economic sanctions that the United States and the EU have maintained on the country since 2011. It is therefore fairly hard to judge which of the two countries’ populations is currently in the worse situation. But, as noted above, in both cases decisionmakers in Washington and Europe must bear a considerable portion of the responsibility for this suffering.
  4. Today, there is a small but growing chance that, thanks to the rapprochement achieved between Saudi Arabia and Iran and its regionwide fall-out, the dynamic of murderous polarity inside Syria can be tamped down and possibly even reversed. Obviously, Western states should be pressed not to impede the tamping down of the hostilities inside Syria. (More than that, we should press Western governments to remove from Syria the hostile occupying forces they still have inside the country, and to lift all the sanctions… But maybe, we should start small in our demands?)
  5. The fact that Syria still has a continuity of governance, with a single national government that has remained a member of the United Nations continuously throughout the civil war, and that has now been readmitted to full membership in the Arab League, makes the path to de-escalation and finding a negotiated resolution to the country’s internal conflicts considerably easier than in the case of Libya. (Would anyone really like to have seen Libya-style anarchy spread throughout the whole of Syria, instead of seeing Pres. Bashar al-Asad still in power?)

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4 thoughts on “War, Morality, Syria, Libya”

  1. I am afraid the answer to your final purportedly rhetorical question is yes, Western powers if not consciously seeking anarchy in Syria were indifferent to whether that was the result of their interventions. Their policy to this day is “anybody but Assad”. Their cynical use of sanctions cruelly punitive to ordinary citizens highlights the hollowness of liberal humanitarian pretensions.

    The sanctions issue points up how complex modern warfare has become. Syria is the butt of economic warfare (sanctions), information warfare ( academe as well as media) and lawfare (through weaponised international and national legal institutions), on top of military occupation. The definition of “bellum” needs widening.

    1. Peter, you raise some excellent points here. I think I agree with your point that the Western powers seeking regime change in Syria were indifferent as to whether the outcome would be anarchy. (Plus, they probably don’t have a robust idea of the horrendous suffering that lawlessness and warfare both inflict on civilian communities.)

      I also agree that we need a wider definition of “bellum”. Punishing economic warfare (as well as information warfare) has been practiced by settler-colonial states since the 15th century… But the whole body of Just War theory and its derivatives was for a long time centered on army-vs-army warfare. It is a small step forward that there are UN bodies that now investigate the effects of sanctions; but the powers of such investigatory bodies are very small and their reports very often politicized.

  2. The Western propaganda bubble on Ukraine distorts the image of everything outside the bubble. No credit will be given to the Russians from within the bubble. Stepping outside the bubble, it bears mentioning that Mr. Putin and his group have made war in Ukraine in an unusual way. The call it a Special Military Operation; apparently self-aware of its uniqueness.

    In summary, they honored the Minsk Agreements until their utter failure, sought more direct negotiations before acting, limited their attacks in several ways that tend to minimize casualties, sought another peace plan in Ankara until it was undermined, transported civilians to safety, and they are rebuilding war-torn areas when feasible.

    Maybe most importantly, The Russians coordinate with China and the non-western world on the economic and political fronts. Their actions on these fronts so far have been no less than earth shaking. Restating this in terms related to “just wars”, their efforts with China and the third world have helped empower them. They are likely to succeed in their goals in Ukraine.

    Please understand I am not seeking to justify war here; only to point out as a foot note to the main post that the Russians are doing something unusual. I don’t pretend to grasp the full dimensions of their actions.

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