As the drumbeat for war in Syria intensifies, Carnegie Council publishes two pieces on the ethics of intervention:

AGAINST: "'To Jaw-Jaw Is Always Better than to War-War,'" by David C. Speedie.

FOR: "The Case for Punitive Intervention," by Anthony F. Lang, Jr.

What do you think? Does the humanitarian crisis in Syria warrant international intervention? Is the chemical attack reason enough to deploy American power?

[PHOTO CREDIT: Department of Defense (PD).]

Tags: ethics, intervention, peace, war

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Ken Pollack wrote in Newsweek that the United States should “do nothing or pursue an intervention far more decisive than limited strikes.”

Only at second glance, i realized, that this sentence makes a lot of sense. If SC agrees on a res., and R2P is the basis of the decision, it has to be a long term engagement - in every sense. If, on the other side, there is no such reference, a (limited) strike against the Assad regime is to maintain US credibility, to state an example ect. but it is not necessary a humanitarian intervention. 


Yes, the drum beats, possible war in Syria intensifies; humanity is faced with two options - FOR or AGAINST intervention in Syria. If humanity should hold to ‘the jaw –jaw is always better than war-war’ (splendid!), Perhaps that may be taken as normative and lawful perceive action and on the other hand, if humanity should hold  ‘ the case for punitive intervention’  perhaps that may also may be taken as normative and lawful expedient active action. In any case,  and emphatically speaking, it is  truism that not all that is lawful is expedient but all that is expedient  may be lawful   as in the case of Syria given the level of dehumanization and humanitarian crises and challenges that the war in Syria has precipitated. Thence, the wanton destruction of lives and property, the disrespect for fundamental human rights, the flagrant disrespect for international law, the yet to manifest consequences of the negative precedent that Birshir Al-Assad led regime has set on the use of chemical weapons obviously provide  ethical and moral basis for intervention(limited strike). We cannot shy away from the naked fact that ‘the political game’ at the UN level between blocks has been a stumbling block for a very long time since the war in Syria broke out. Intervention in Syria has since been long overdue. It is quite unfortunate that a regime in the 21st century under the guise of sectarian war can go to that extent and unleash terror and   flagrantly violates international law and commit crime against humanity. This ungodly action is immorally informed and requires a morally expedient action that is self justified as in the case of Syria. With proper unbiased investigation, evidences abound that truly chemical weapons were used by Birshir Al-Assad regime on many occasions. One basic fact we must take into consideration is that if a punitive measure is not taken ‘today’ against the perpetrators, this will send wrong signal to potential perpetrators ‘tomorrow’. Perhaps, the next attack ‘tomorrow’ using any of the WMD will be a thousand folds of this. The use of chemical weapons is just a’ fragment’ of  reason while American Power should be deployed, other fragments have been identified earlier and chiefly is the gross dehumanization of human kind in Syria-children, women and men are injured and dying every day. We must also realize that the global world is faced with small scale tribal wars; any attempt for the perpetrators to commit this offence with impunity will not go down too well with a peaceful world.

Consequently,   the deployment of American power to Syria should not be motivated by sentiment. Respect for fundamental human rights should be upheld in the course of the intervention to ensure intervention credibility.   

I recommend also checking out Seth Kaplan's essay on "Seven Scenarios for the Future of Syria."

If intervention (R2P) must happen base on Assad'a 'use of chemical weapons' against civilians, let the UNSC lead. The global community, must find better ways of letting the UN to be more engaged as an institution and division on matters of ideology at this point is disastrous- as it will continue to affect productive measures of mitigating the ongoing violence. For 'American credibility', I assume that it will be an ethical point to act within the framework of a UN led intervention than alone.

While we're waiting for the outcome of today's Security Council meeting, here's a response to David C. Speedie and Anthony F. Lang's articles.

There are plenty of moral and political arguments for and against international intervention in Syria, yet no one seems to care to distinguish between them. A troublesome truth about international politics seems to be that the fate of the Syrian population largely depends on, and will probably be determined by, how the US and Russia decide to handle the tensions between them, whether within the Security Council or outside the UN. 

Of course it won't come as a shock to anyone that, as Political Realism teaches us, international politics is less concerned about solving an acute problem, but is rather defined by states' efforts to twist any situation to their advantage. The danger, of course, in all the usual beating about the bush and conflating moral, pragmatic, political and strategic motivations is that one will eventually lose sight of the problem at hand.


From a pragmatic point of view (as is also mentioned in Speedie's article), there are several political reasons against intervention in Syria. There is a possibility that the conflict might escalate, that Israel might get involved more than the US would prefer, and tension between the US and Russia might increase.

Advocates of an intervention seem to be voicing their intuition that 'doing something is better than doing nothing' because, as they see it, Obama should demonstratively take a stand against Assad's use of chemical weapons. While this might be morally well-meaning, its effectiveness is open to doubt. So the question arises whether Obama should - all in the name of 'morality' - employ military force to convey a signal and take a moral stand, thereby, however, risking to renew tensions with Russia and to exacerbate the situation in Syria and its neighbours. 

What is more, while punishing the Assad regime could preserve Obama's credibility and be very morally satisfying, how to help the Syrian people is a very different question (whose complexity Seth Kaplan outlines in this article). 

Considering an intervention on the grounds of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), Lang reminds us that fulfilling this responsibility would require "full scale toppling of a legal and political order and its replacement with a new one." Whether an intervention might be justifiable on humanitarian grounds or not, and whatever moral reasons there might be for calling on R2P - the conclusion that a limited, punitive military intervention would be a better alternative, because it would require much less commitment, is somewhat problematic. After all, the motivation for intervening in order to fulfil a humanitarian responsibility on one hand, and for intervention as punitive measure on the other, are quite different, which of course also goes for the respective consequences.

Whilst the use of force for the sake of upholding and reinforcing agreed-upon laws and conventions may be legitimate, this should not be an excuse to neglect the question of how to help the Syrian people survive this conflict. In other words, yes, since Syria did sign the Geneva Protocol in 1925 which prohibits the use of chemical weapons, sanctions could be justified if it indeed turns out that Assad used those weapons. However, Lang reminds us that the kind of intervention he advocates "would not change the regime, but only punish it for using chemical weapons." If the goal is to bring about change, Syria is going to need more 'help' than a couple of days of air strikes. If, however, the goal is to punish Assad and to appease consciences in the West, a limited, punitive intervention might do the job. 

Should Obama act on his threats in an effort to maintain his credibility, or should he avoid the risk of provoking a retaliatory strike on Israel and Turkey? Should he accept likely vetoes from Russia and China in the Security Council, or should the US trample international law and use military force illegitimately for the sake of making a 'moral point'? Should the international community punish Assad or should Obama do everything to avoid 'another Iraq war'?

The clash between moral values and political principles seems to have become a problem of international politics too obvious and inevitable to deserve serious thought. But perhaps it's worth considering that we may need to identify the conflicting principles at stake before we can make a morally informed political decision - if only to avoid even greater hypocrisy among world leaders. 

As a solution, Speedie suggests "concerted Western/Russian efforts to an immediate cessation of hostilities and of arms shipments from all quarters, including Russia, to both sides in the conflict; and negotiations, without preconditions, for a post-war Syria." This means focussing diplomatic efforts on the matter at hand, and the difficulty of this seems to be the 'elephant in the room.' 

Unless we acknowledge the elephant, and address the global irreconcilability of certain values constructively, this elephant of moral and political conflicts will continue growing until there is no more room left. The inevitable and therefore often dismissed clash of moral principles, political necessities and strategic concerns should not be paralysing the international community, but provoke serious multilateral negotiations. Let us hope that this is what happened today in the Security Council.


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