Amb. Thomas Melady argues that military intervention in Syria cannot be justified

September 23, 2013  |  ARTICLES

This article by Amb. Thomas P. Melady, Senior Diplomat in Residence at IWP, was originally published on the website of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

From the editor at Catholics in Alliance: Classic just war theory sets out five requirements, all of which must be met, for a resort to military force to be morally justified. Rooted in the writings of St. Augustine, refined by St. Thomas Aquinas, and still central to official Church teaching, just war theory remains the most morally rigorous means of assessing the issues of justice and war. In this essay for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Thomas Melady, former U.S. ambassador to Burundi, Uganda, and lastly the Holy See, recalls this classic teaching, applies it to Syria, and concludes that U.S. military force is not justified.

Military Intervention in Syria Cannot be Justified
ByThomas Melady, former U.S. ambassador to Burundi, Uganda, and the Holy See

As the world community reflects on the situation in Syria, many proposals are under consideration. Some of us have observed that little consideration has been given to the classical question - can a military strike against Syria be morally justified? It might be worthwhile to consider an historic moral standard that has been used over the centuries. Let us now look at the facts.

The head of the Syrian government, Bashar al-Assad, has used chemical weapons in Syria. These weapons were used against the Syrian people! The core accusation is that these weapons were used to kill innocent people including children. Some would say that it makes little difference whether it was chemical weapons or conventional weapons. There is no question that chemical weapons were used. The results for the world to see on television presented a horrible picture.

The just cause in this situation would be to prevent additional people, especially civilians, and very especially children, from being killed. Some would say that this in itself is a just cause for military action in the current case of Syria.

The second requirement to justify military action is that this use of force must be the last resort. In my opinion, there is no evidence that every effort and every possibility has been exhausted. The United Nations was ignored. The reason given was the assumption that Russia and China would not, within the framework of the United Nations, seriously discuss ways and means to resolve the Syrian challenge with the use of military force. But was there a serious effort to involve these two governments?

In order to avoid reckless and haphazard use of force, the advocates of applying the just war criteria have argued that success must at least beprobable. There could be many discussions about how probable such action would be in the case of Syria. There is, however, no record of any serious discussion on the subject of probable success.

There was certainly extensive discussion about the question of the means, and that the means must be proportionate. In this regard President Obama, in his national address to the American people, was obviously concerned about making this point. It was not his intention to authorize a massive military strike, but one that would demonstrate the concern of the civilized nations that a nation had used a gas attack and had used it against civilians including children.

A final requirement for a declaration that a proposed military action is a just military action is that it be initiated by a legitimate authority. The Security Council of the United Nations is the usual mechanism for the enforcement of international law. The United States government is entitled to defend itself, but it has no special authority to enforce the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and there has been no Security Council resolution, or even a resolution from the Arab League, deputizing the American government to enforce a breach, even an egregious breach, of international law.

Some in the world have dismissed any consideration of the question - would the undertaking by the United States of military action in Syria at this time meet the standards long advocated for being declared a just war?  In my opinion, while the current situation in Syria is emotionally disturbing, especially the serious allegation that a gas attack was used against civilians including children, it does not qualify for justifying intervention by the United States as a just war. The United States, in my opinion, should demand that the international community give more serious attention to utilizing traditional diplomacy and negotiation. The rush to war is dangerous. I remember while serving as US ambassador to the Holy See, Pope John Paul II asked me to give a message to the then-President of the United States, George H.W. Bush. The message was a simple declarative sentence. I remember it as if he told me yesterday, "The road to war is the road of no return." He further asked me to advise the President to avoid war and to continue pushing for peace.

Pope Francis, speaking with Jordanian King Abdullah II, said that dialogue and negotiations are "the only option for putting an end to the conflict and violence." In order to emphasize what he said, Pope Francis called for a day of fasting for peace.

Both from the standpoint of historical teaching and what contemporary church leaders are saying, the Catholic response should be the use of military force in this situation should be avoided.