As I explained in my previous post, military interventions are almost never morally acceptable. The basic reason is relatively straightforward. Such interventions fail much more often than they succeed. And so, as a rule, we should not undertake them.
Fernando disagrees. He believes that refraining from interventions is unacceptable. My view is too close to pacifism. I find this puzzling. I don’t see why getting closer to pacifism than the kind of wanton interventionism we see today counts as an objection. It’s a conclusion. And pretty clearly the right one at that, I’d say.
Fernando proposes that interventions, and in particular the Syrian one, are justified if three conditions are justified. Here are the conditions:
the Syria bombings will be justified if (1) they had a just cause; (2) the commander, Trump, weighed consequences responsibly, and (3) the bombings satisfied proportionality, that is, they turned out well.
It’s not clear to me (at all) why Fernando thinks this position actually licenses the interventions he wants. Right before concluding that the Syrian attacks are justified, he admits that “there are serious doubts about (2).” But, on his view, shouldn’t that mean that the intervention is wrong? I would add that there very serious doubts about (3) too. As I pointed out before, the track record of intervention gives us zero reason to believe this will work out. (And there are good reasons for believing that this trend will continue into the future.)
So if interventions are acceptable only if both nothing went wrong ahead of time, and things worked out in the end, then the Syrian case begins to look quite worrying. But Syria really isn’t exceptional in this way. The cases where both nothing went wrong ahead of time and things worked out in the end are few and far between. You can probably count them on the fingers of one hand.* If interventions are justified only when both these things go well, means accepting an even more pacifist conclusion than I defend.
I actually think it’s better to choose how to evaluate interventions. Either we should judge them on how they work out ex post, or we should judge them on the decisions ex ante. In Debating Humanitarian Intervention, I offer several arguments for why a purely ex post approach won’t do. And these problems cannot be avoided in the standard ways. (That is, they don’t go away by simply saying that doing something that was ex ante wrong or irresponsible makes an agent culpable or excused, while the ex post wrongness makes the act unjustifiable. That’s a response that works well in most cases, but there are cases in which it’s obviously and deeply mistaken.**)
The best option, then, is to simply accept that being responsible ex ante is what matters. Of course that means that sometimes we might forego things that might have worked out in the end, simply because there was no good reason to believe they would do so. But that’s something I’m comfortable with. It also means sometimes doing things because it’s the right thing to do ex ante, and then accepting that, even though they didn’t work out, it was still the right thing to do. That’s something I’m less comfortable with, but still can accept. After all, if you’d put us in the same position, we’d do the same thing all over again. Stronger: we wouldn’t want anyone to do anything else.
Most theories of just war pay lip service to these ex ante ideas. They accept a “success condition” for justified intervention. The success condition is ex ante in nature – it refers to the prospects of success, not actual success. But as soon as we accept that, we must also accept that interventions are almost never justified. There is simply not enough reason to think, right now, that we’ll end up doing them well.
* There is a rich literature chronicling the crappy decision-making procedures used by intervening powers when deciding whether or not to attack. If you’re interested, this is a good starting point.