Current Events, Academic Philosophy

Against Attacking Syria

Fernando supports the US attack on Syria, if tentatively. I’m (even) less sure. Like Fernando, I think that the moral questions involved are complex. Unfortunately, many commentators fall back on slogans.

I agree, of course, that Assad is an awful tyrant. The world would be better off without him. No quarrel there. But that’s not enough to justify military strikes. What’s needed, in addition, is for the harm that such a strike imposes to be justifiable in their own right.

In our forthcoming book Debating Humanitarian Intervention, I distinguish between two kinds of justifications. First, harms may be justified because people are liable to them – most notably, because they’ve forfeited their rights against those harms. Second, there are what we might call lesser-evil justifications. These involve harms to people who are not liable to them, but whose rights can be justifiably overridden in order to achieve something morally more important.

When we are dealing with this second kind of justification, I argue, attacks must meet a so-called success condition. This condition, roughly, requires that attacks have a good enough chance of bringing about a just goal (just in light of the expected harms, that is). Only then can we justify imposing harms on people who have rights against those harms being imposed.

Reports about the actual harms imposed by these strikes vary wildly. Fernando linked to a report suggesting no collateral damage. The L.A. Times reports that Syrian officials claim 15 people were killed, nine of whom lived in surrounding villages. It is hard to know which is closer to the truth at this point. Even if we assume – which may not be true – that the airport personnel was liable to being attacked, should these reports of civilian casualties be true, it is hard to see the harms as proportional, and thus justifiable. I think Fernando would agree.

Here’s something about which Fernando and I disagree. In my view, insofar as the morality of the strikes is concerned, the most important thing isn’t how they actually worked out. More precisely, if we want to know whether the attack was morally justified, whether they were the right thing to do, we should not look at its actual results. Instead, we should look at its ex ante prospects – what the chances of success or failure were at the time the attack was undertaken.

This, too, is difficult to ascertain. Each case must be judged on its own merits, and the people actually making this decision (fortunately) have more and better information at their disposal than we do. However, generally speaking, the prospects of interventions being successful – and thus satisfying the success condition – are very bad.

The empirical literature on intervention is not particularly uplifting. Interventions fail much more often than they succeed, and they frequently end up making things worse. In what’s the best empirical study of military intervention I’ve seen, political scientist Patrick Regan studied 175 military interventions that occurred in the period 1944-1994. Regan finds that interventions in general succeed to reduce violence and loss of life in only about 30 percent of the cases.

Of course, not all interventions are alike. Under the most favorable circumstances, interventions manage to reduce violence and loss of life in about 50 percent of the cases. These cases are interventions that are undertaken unilaterally by major powers in intense conflicts on behalf of the existing government. While the Syrian conflict is certainly intense, and the strike was taken unilaterally, it did oppose the existing government. Such interventions typically succeed much less frequently in reducing violence. Indeed, they often lengthen and worsen a conflict. (Especially when the intervention attracts a counter-intervention on behalf of the other side.)

There are good reasons why we should expect results like these. Foreign military and political leaders – despite knowing more than you and me – typically know very little about the situation on the ground. Interventions must often cope with internally conflicting goals. And there are strong political pressures on the leaders to select strategies that are not well suited to the conflict.

Let me focus on this last point here. In Debating Humanitarian Intervention, I write:

Since democratic leaders are accountable to their voters, the political system in which they operate is designed to skew their decisions towards the interest of their people. Generally, of course, this is a good idea, as protects people against the use of political power for the private interests of the leaders. But the system does not just steer decisions away from the private interests of politicians, it steers them away from the interests of anyone to whom the decision-makers are not accountable. This includes, of course, the citizens of countries that are the target of military interventions.

Unfortunately, the interests of the people (and interest-groups) of intervening countries are generally not well aligned with the interests of the people whom intervention is supposed to help. The voters in intervening countries have a strong interest in limiting potential casualties among their own armed forces, in limiting the financial cost of intervention, and in avoiding a lengthy military presence in the target country. Each of these moves interventions away from what’s required for a good chance of success.

This, of course, explains why airstrikes are the preferred method of intervention these days. We call them “surgical”, but they are mostly clean in the sense of making it easier for us to ignore how dirty our hands might be. One more quote:

In politics, the lives of foreigners have almost no value. And so the same dynamics plague political decisions about how to intervene. Interveners choose their strategies primarily with an eye on maintaining domestic support, not on optimizing the chances of success. Since the main goal is to minimize casualties on one’s own side, interventions often depend heavily on air power. But while this kind of engagement minimizes domestic political costs, it is rarely strategically optimal. Committing ground troops is often a better strategy, yet too tough to sell to voters back home.

If it’s true, of course, as Fernando said, that “this means commanders almost never are permitted to act.” He seems not willing to live with that conclusion. I think it’s the only morally acceptable position to take, given the dangers we impose on innocent people whenever we do intervene.

One last thing. It is controversial to say, as I have, that the most important thing, in terms of justification, are the ex ante prospects of the attack, not the actual consequences. Many of you will want to resist this. Many of you will say that the ex ante prospects determine whether Trump was culpable for attacking, but the actual outcomes determine whether the attack was the right thing or the wrong thing to do. I think this is an important mistake, for reasons to which I will return in a later post.

Published on:
Author: Bas van der Vossen
  • Sean II

    “…this means commanders almost never are permitted to act…I think it’s the only morally acceptable position to take.”

    Great idea. The more humane a society is, the more likely it is to accept such arguments. The more it accepts such arguments, the more likely it is to disarm.

    What could possibly go wrong here?

    • It’s possible we could reach a point where we go to war too rarely, but I think we’re a long ways from facing that problem. Right now, our problem is that we’re too willing to kill.

      • Sean II

        That’s true but it’s not the argument Bas is making.

      • Basvandervossen

        You’re right, Andrew. And you read me better than Sean does. I don’t say or think that war is never justified. I just think it’s justified much less often than Fernando (or Sean) seem to think.

        • Sean II

          I have said nothing about how often war is justified.

      • TimStarr

        Or not willing to kill enough. E.g., if we had taken out Assad and the Mullahs in 2003 right after Saddam, then perhaps there wouldn’t have been either the Iraqi insurgency OR the Syrian civil war, since both the Iraqi insurgency and the Syrian civil war have been largely fueled by Syrian and Iranian intervention.

        • Possibly. On the one hand, it’s trivially true that if you kill everyone, there will be no wars left to fight. But I interpret what you’re saying as something closer to “if you kill a lot of people now, we will end up saving lots of lives in the long run.”

          The problem with this is that the long-run effects of war are notoriously hard to predict. Who could have foreseen that World War I would usher in both the Soviet Union and another world war a few decades later?

          We should only kill a lot of people if we can be fairly certain we are saving a much greater number of people in the future (otherwise we should be put to death for committing mass murder). The history of predictions about war suggests we can not.

          • TimStarr

            Germany started WWI, sponsored the Bolshevik Revolution, & started WWII due to not having been beaten badly enough in WWII. Proof: Germany was beaten much worse in WWII and has been pacifist ever since.

          • I’m not sure how Germany sponsoring the Bolshevik Revolution is related to my comment about the unpredictability of war.

            It’s true that Germany has been fairly pacifist since WWII, but isn’t that also true of lots of other countries that weren’t soundly defeated in a war? It doesn’t seem like being occupied is a necessary prerequisite to being peaceful.

            Also, some countries are soundly defeated in a war, and what follows is not peace but years of civil war and bloodshed. This seems to be what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries whose governments were toppled.

    • Uriel Alexis Farizeli Fiori

      disarm? self-defense is clearly a different situation than humanitarian intervention, for which the ex ante prospects are much less bleak. the USG doesn’t need to be able to bomb the hell out of a Middle Eastern country to be able to defend its borders and territory. much to the contrary.

      • Sean II

        There’s nothing about self-defense that removes the problem of killing non-combatants.

        • Uriel Alexis Farizeli Fiori

          unless the invader army is made up of civilians, I guess it does…

          • Sean II

            “Invading army”?

            What century are you philosophizing for, the 18th?

            Hate to break it to you, but among industrial states any war posing a threat big enough to justify self defense will involve the killing of non-combatants.

          • Uriel Alexis Farizeli Fiori

            if there isn’t any invading army, what are you defending from?

          • Sean II

            Let’s bring you up to date slowly:

            Dirigibles. These are a kind of lighter-than-air ship which, according to noted futurist Herbert George Wells, might one day be “weaponized” (pardon my novel coinage) for the purpose of strategic bombardment.

            In such a case it might regrettably become necessary to regard the dirigible factory itself as a military target, with tragic consequences for the women and child laborers who toil within.

          • Uriel Alexis Farizeli Fiori

            rather than, say, surveiling airspace and taking down unauthorised aircrafts?

      • King Goat

        It does seem as an empirical matter a country that only fights in self defense is going to produce less collateral deaths than one that fights both in self defense and for interventionist reasons.

        • Uriel Alexis Farizeli Fiori

          it certainly is. but as a prior, I’d imagine that much less civilians get killed by an army defending border, if only because the invader won’t usually use civilians as soldiers.

  • “if we want to know whether the attack was morally
    justified, whether they were the right thing to do, we should not look
    at its actual results. Instead, we should look at its ex ante prospects – what the chances of success or failure were at the time the attack was undertaken.”

    This, it seems to me, involves the same sort of confusion I descried in Fernando’s post. When you talk about an atack being “morally justified” you seem to be talking about what it was reasonable for an agent to do in the light of the available information, which is why you say that we should look at its ex ante prospects. But you equate an attack being “morally justified” with its being the right thing to do. But whether an act is the right thing to do is an objective matter, which depends upon the facts, “its actual results.” You should distinguish the rightness or wrongness of actions from the blameworthiness or praiseworthiness of agents.

    So, your argument should be: it is sometimes right to attack; but we can never have good enough information for us to tell whether in any particular case it is right to attack; in fact, studies of past cases indicate that we usually get it wrong; therefore we should rarely, or never, attack.

    But your conclusion, that “commanders almost never are permitted to act,” does not follow. All that follows is that commanders almost never know whether they are permitted to act.

    I look forward to your later post in which you will addres this issue.

    • King Goat

      I don’t deny there can be a distinction between wrongness of an act and blame worthiness of the actor-the concept is built into our legal system for example. But I don’t think there always is. Quite a few participants in recent history’s atrocities honestly thought they were doing the right and reasonable thing, I don’t think they get absolved because of that.

      • That raises the question as to whether they were culpable for the views that they held. There might also be strict liability.

        • King Goat

          I think the recognition of strict liability supports my point. In strict liability culpability attaches to certain actions/consequences regardless of intent or reasonable care taken. In your words there’s no distinction between wrongness and culpability.

          • I don’t think so. Strict liability imposes legal responsibility without fault (so without culpabilty).

          • King Goat

            Is the word ‘legal’ doing the heavy lifting there, because the first definition of culpability I got when googling was “responsibility for a fault or wrong; blame”?

          • I guess it may be open to interpretation. One of the legal bods may offer an opinion…

    • Basvandervossen

      Danny,
      The idea here is that there is a constraint on the use of violence (when violence can be justified only as a lesser evil). The constraint is that the violence must have a good ex ante evidence that our action will be successful (successful understood in moral terms). And since we rarely – although not never – have such evidence, we should very rarely attack.

      • Yes, I got that, Bas. In your terms the rightness or wrongness of an act varies with the information available to the agent. But I was putting it in my terms. An act is either right or wrong (or neither). What varies with the information available to the agent is the agent’s culpability.

      • TimStarr

        So, which of the offensives conducted by the Allies in WWII met your level of ex ante justification?

  • gator80

    I don’t understand why neither you nor Fernando address the uncertainty over whose actions led to the release of the chemical weapons. With the complexity of the Syrian theater multiple possibilities are realistically conceivable. One would think JWT at least factors in the likelihood that the entity you are attacking is actually the guilty party. (You, Bas, might come to the same conclusion as in your post but for a different reason.)

    • TimStarr

      Doesn’t matter. First, the claim that the rebels did the attack is Kremlin disinfo only swallowed by the ignorant or evil. Second, ISIS and al-Nusra are Assad’s controlled opposition, so anything they do is also Assad’s fault, since he created them, facilitated their growth, etc. The Free Syrian Army has no air force, no known chemical weapons stockpiles,missiles, bombs, etc., and the site where the Syrian sarin gas bomb hit is now a crater in the middle of a street, not a building that could’ve housed a chemical weapons stockpile.

      • gator80

        So would you put Ron Paul in the ignorant or evil category?

        • TimStarr

          Evil. He has at least one paid Putin shill (Laughland) on his Advisory Board, and may be on Putin’s payroll himself.

          • Sean II

            Ever seen Four Lions?

            You remind me of Barry.

  • TimStarr

    Reduce loss of life compared to what? E.g., would Libya have been more or less bloody if Qadaffi had not given up his WMDs? And he only gave up his WMDs because he saw what we did to Saddam, and feared the same fate, even though we did not actually send conventional ground troops to Libya. We have a pretty good idea of what Libya could’ve been like if Qadaffi had kept his WMDs – the Syrian civil war, where Assad kept his WMDs, and has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and driven millions of them from their homes.

    In the past century, democide has killed more people than battle, and the worst democides have been perpetrated by regimes at peace with all external enemies, against their own people. And we know that there have been genocides stopped by the intervention of foreign powers, such as those by Idi Amin in Uganda, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Hutu regime in Rwanda, that of Pakistan in Bangladesh by India, etc. Not to mention WWII, of course.

    Furthermore, what “civil war” since 1945 has been without any intervention by any foreign powers on any side of the conflict? Many of them had Soviet sponsorship, at least.

  • Rob Gressis

    I’d be curious to know what people think of this (long) article on the chemical weapons in Syria:

    http://necpluribusimpar.net/chemical-attack-syria/

    • Sean II

      It’s at least plausible. Of course the problem is most of us have no way to improve our level of information here.

      Western media has lately suffered a near total credibility collapse. Nothing in their recent behavior to rule out the possibility of screw-up this size.

    • TimStarr

      Obvious Kremlin disinfo.

      • Rob Gressis

        Are you serious?

  • Pingback: The Syrian Bombings and Just War Theory, Part II - Bleeding Heart Libertarians()

  • Pingback: Against intervention - ex ante / ex post - Bleeding Heart Libertarians()