“Just war” doctrine remains one of the strongest manifestations of early Christian thought in modern Western political philosophy. Even the Latin terms jus ad bello — that is, waging war for just purposes — and jus in bello — fighting in a just manner — remain in current use. But one question that has yet to be resolved is how to apply these broad principles in the case of irregular warfare, where the distinction between combatant and noncombatant is blurred.
The war in Syria in particular and the broader struggle for power in the Middle East raise these questions anew. Not only are there many contenders, but there also are many purposes, not least among them the motivations of a perhaps perverted but nonetheless powerful faith. Where the beliefs of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters lie along the spectrum of Islamic tradition is less the point than the fact that their faith makes them formidable foes. They employ and indeed celebrate their brutality; negotiating a peaceful coexistence is not in the cards.
Another unhappy reality is that their methods have achieved some serious successes. The Islamic State, in particular, has exceeded expectations. It’s not a “jayvee team,” or simply “a bunch of killers with good social media.” Nor is it “contained.” Yes, the amount of territory controlled across Syria and Iraq isn’t expanding, but its influence and number of adherents are growing across the Muslim world, and its ability to conduct coordinated and sophisticated terror attacks is increasingly impressive.
Impressive, at least, to the French and the Russians, who have responded to the Islamic State’s attacks by stepping up military action across the region. Geopolitical realists like former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell think that it’s time for the United States to revise its approach toward Syria and work with the Russians and the Assad regime. “Clearly,” he says, “[Assad] is part of the problem but he may also be part of the solution.”
That might be a clever strategy. But even if it were wise — let’s stipulate for the moment that it is — it would pose a problem for the just-war principles America claims to hold.
To begin with, it’s hard to regard Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin as men with pure purposes. They may be sovereign, but they are not legitimate authorities. Moreover, in suppressing what originated as a revolt by truly oppressed Syrians, they seek to reimpose coercive rule. In sum, their ends are evil.
Their means are likewise evil. Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons and the notorious “barrel bombs” with the intent to impose civilian casualties. The number of Russian aircraft operating in Syria may be small, but their bombing runs are indiscriminate. They may lack the kind of capability and capacity for precision of U.S. aircraft, but the Russian military has always preferred mass to accuracy.
In sum, it would be unjust for the United States – or for anyone – to ally itself with such evil. We are not driven by necessity. This is not a Stalin-versus-Hitler choice; we are more than able to defeat and destroy the Islamic State or, indeed, intervene effectively and justly in the larger regional war without depending upon these thugs.
We are likely, however, to have to rely on lesser thugs and very violent means. We must find a way to be effective militarily and in a timely way (for it is also wrong to prolong a war unnecessarily) while striving to adhere to our standards of justice.
In this, we face something not dissimilar from the challenge that Abraham Lincoln faced in 1863. The southern Confederacy was not “contained” — it was close to being recognized as a sovereign state in London and Paris — let alone defeated. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was no junior varsity squad. To destroy the Confederacy, Lincoln sought out hard men like Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman for the hard task of ripping the innards of the southern economy and society — the “slavocracy” — to shreds.
To justly govern these hard men, the president issued “General Order 100,” Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field. To draft these guidelines, Lincoln turned to a German immigrant known as Francis Lieber — a political philosopher who had fought in several of the European revolutions of the early 19th century and was thus well acquainted with the excesses of “partisan” warfare.
The 157 articles of the “Lieber Code” covered a wide array of topics, but the sections on ethical treatment of local populations and free slaves made it a uniquely American manual for waging just war under irregular conditions, where the distinction between combatant and noncombatant is murky. The code was taken as the basis for the international Hague Convention of 1907, which promulgated laws of war and defined war crimes, and its influence is still strongly present in the U.S. Department of Defense Law of War manual, just updated in 2015.
We are also likely, when we search for moral clarity, to stumble into something like strategic wisdom. Especially when the situation is nebulous, the right course is often the smart course. The French, once so scornful of America’s ideological approach to the Middle East, seem now ready to admit that the foundations of the liberal international order have gone wobbly. Yet once they settle, there will be the matter of jus post bellum — creating a just order once the fighting stops. This too will be an issue of security as well as morality, if we intervene in the struggle for power in Middle East and the war against terrorists.
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The Islamic State’s members believe they are fighting a new Crusade. They’re wrong.