Current Events, Uncategorized

The Syrian Strikes and Just War Theory

On April 6 President Trump ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airbase ostensibly in retaliation for Al Assad’s lethal gassing of civilians three days earlier.

Bas van der Vossen and I have recently finished writing our book Debating Humanitarian Intervention, appearing with Oxford University Press later this year. There we address the foundational issues pertaining to the justification of wars ostensibly aimed at rescuing persons from severe tyranny, civil war, and other forms of oppression. We take opposite sides in this debate. I think that sometimes these military engagements are justified; Bas thinks they virtually never are. With the Syrian incident fresh in our minds, we thought we would write some posts anticipating our respective positions on this very topical issue. This is the inaugural post.

Literally minutes after the strikes, the blogosphere became awash with legal analyses of the strikes under both constitutional and international law. Some of those analyses are interesting, but for jurisprudential reasons I detail here and here, I regard them as inconclusive at best, and as disguised advocacy at worst, so I will not pursue them here. Rather, I examine the incident under the lens of Just War Theory. JWT addresses the question whether the strikes are morally justified.

Under JWT a military action is justified if it meets (at least) two conditions: the cause must be just, and the action must be proportionate, that is, it must not cause excessive damage.

Just Cause

A war is just if, and only if, it is in defense of persons. If it is a war in defense of my compatriots it is called national self-defense. If it is a war in defense of others it is called humanitarian intervention. The United States government did not conduct the Syria strikes to defend Americans, so it was not a war in self-defense. Ostensibly, President Trump ordered the strikes as retaliation for the massacres perpetrated by the Syrian regime with chemical weapons against civilians. This action by Al Assad qualifies as a crime against humanity  -a new one, as on this he is a notorious recidivist. Was this, then, a humanitarian intervention? A possible skeptical answer is that the massacres had already occurred, so the strikes are objectionable because they are simply punitive, and not aimed at stopping an ongoing atrocity. Some believe that punitive wars are not permissible. Without resolving that issue, it is reasonable to interpret the strikes as aiming to deter the Syrian regime from committing future crimes against humanity, given that the perpetrator now knows that dire consequences would follow. The just cause, then, is not to stop ongoing atrocities but to prevent future ones. In that sense, I think the strikes qualify as humanitarian intervention. A problem remains, however: in order for the United States to have a just cause, the strikes must effectively deter the Syrian regime. If Al Assad ignores the threat and persists in his criminal ways with no consequence, then the strikes would have been for naught, an unjustified use of force.


However, having a just cause is not enough, as those of us who thought the United States had a just cause in Iraq in 2003 painfully learned. In addition, the act of war must not cause excessive damage. This simple notion conceals great complexities. What is excessive damage? At the risk of oversimplifying, war damage can be classified into (at least) two categories:

Collateral damage comprises the foreseen (but not directly willed) deaths and maiming of innocent persons during the war.

Supervening damage comprises the foreseen (but not directly willed) bad consequences , including killing and maiming of innocent persons, that occur after the war but can be reasonably traced to it.

To take an example: the collateral damage of the Iraq war comprised the deaths of Iraqi civilians as a result of the hostilities. The supervening damage comprised the harm done by the emergence, after the war, of jihadist insurgency ; by the vacuum of power that, it is thought, allowed ISIS and other terrorists to thrive; and, perhaps, by the Syrian civil war. These bad effects must, of course, be causally connected to the war in Iraq for them to count in the proportionality calculus.

Both collateral and supervening damage must be proportionate to the realization of the just cause. If a military engagement kills more innocents than the expected number of innocents that the engagement seeks to save, then it is collaterally disproportionate. If a military engagement produces bad ulterior consequences that result in the deaths of more persons than were actually saved, then it is superveningly disproportionate. This is not a simple count of lives lost and saved: sometimes the moral urgency of the cause allows for greater damage.

Applying these metrics to the Syrian airstrikes, we can see that there was little collateral damage. The airstrikes destroyed an airport, but were otherwise quite surgical. It is likely, then, that the airstrikes complied with the first prong of the test.

Estimating supervening proportionality is much harder. It requires an accurate prediction by the commander that his decision will not trigger catastrophic events. In the case of the Syria airstrikes, the truth is that we don’t know. If the military action induces Russia to adopt a global hostile attitude and subsequent wars ensue, then it is possible that the airstrikes will fail the test of supervening proportionality. Imagine that as a result of the airstrikes Russia hardens its support for Al Assad and enables him to perpetrate new atrocities. Or imagine that the airstrikes precipitate a proxy war between Syria and Iraq, each counting Russia and the United States as their respective protectors. Or image that Russia, in retaliation, invades Estonia.

So, unfortunately, judging the Syria airstrikes under JWT is not possible until these consequences are known. It is too early to tell. Yet this uncertainty raises a new and perplexing problem. Donald Trump ordered the strikes. Is he culpable of recklessness if he didn’t pause to calculate the consequences? What if he did such estimation as best he could? In that case, if things go well, we will tend to say he was right. But what if things go wrong? Will he be retroactively culpable, even if the estimation of risk was sound? These are difficult issues, because they pose a dilemma. If the probability of (justified) expected damage is less than 1, then the commander can never be sure that his action is right. Bas’ view, as I understand it, is that the ex ante odds of an intervention working out well – insofar as we can know them – are too poor. But this means commanders almost never are permitted to act. No war or revolution (since the same uncertainty arises in violent revolution) is ever justified. More: defensive force is never justified either, since we cannot be sure that defending our homeland will not cause a nuclear holocaust.

I choose to follow the intuition that, despite the unavoidable uncertainty, some wars, and hence some humanitarian interventions, are justified. Commanders must make calls on the spot. Sometimes they will be vindicated, sometimes they won’t. But the pacifist alternative according to which we should never act is, for me, impossible to swallow.

So, with trepidation, I suggest that given the information available and subject to the two conditions I specified (that the strikes must be an effective deterrent and that they must not make thing worse in the medium and long term), Trump did the right thing.

  • DBritt

    Certainly there is value in a theory that judges actions retrospectively. But I think we also have to consider how to judge actions that have not yet been taken (or judge them retrospectively based on the information known at the time). In that sense I think phrase: “in order for the United States to have a just cause, the strikes must effectively deter the Syrian regime” signals a weakness in JWT as you describe it. We all understand that losing a hand in poker doesn’t mean you played the hand wrong. The same is true here. If a plan of action has, say, an 80% chance of deterring future war crimes that is very different than if it has a 5% chance but we get lucky. How justified is the decision *at the time it was made?* That’s what I really want to know.

  • It seems to me that there is some confusion there. I’ll try to sort it out in stages.

    “Donald Trump ordered the strikes. Is he culpable of
    recklessness if he didn’t pause to calculate the consequences?”

    I think yes.

    “What if
    he did such estimation as best he could? In that case, if things go
    well, we will tend to say he was right.”

    What if he did NOT do such estimation and things go well? Then he performs a right action, but he is still cuplable of recklessness.

    “But what if things go wrong?
    Will he be retroactively culpable, even if the estimation of risk was

    If things go wrong he did a wrong act. But if he acted in accord with the best information at the time, he is not culpable, because he was trying to do a right act.

    “If the
    probability of (justified) expected damage is less than 1, then the
    commander can never be sure that his action is right.”

    No one can ever be sure that his action will turn out to be the right one. ‘There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.’

    “Bas’ view, as I
    understand it, is that the ex ante odds of an intervention working out well – insofar as we can know them – are too poor. But this means commanders almost never are permitted to act.”

    That would mean paralysis. Hardly anyone would do anything of significance.

    • Perhaps I should add that, in what I said there is an impicit distinction. Whether an act is right depends upon the facts. Whether an act is reasonable depends upon the information available. Whether an agent is culpable depends upon his motives and whether he took reasonable steps to acquire and appraise relevant information.

      • King Goat

        Danny, can a person with good motive and who took reasonable steps to acquire and appraise relevant information still be culpable when it turns out that he was wrong in some horrific way? I’m thinking of the later moral intuitions of someone like McNamara, who I think could be said to have had good motives, was an intelligent guy who gave planning the Vietnam War more than just a good old college try, but who later in life concluded he was wrong and appeared contrite for the many deaths that were linked to his ultimately discovered to be mistake. If culpability can’t come from an honest, good faith, intelligent effort that ultimately is discovered to be wrong with horrific consequences then McNamara’s contriteness seems odd. But most moral intuitions would, I think, find it to be appropriate.

        • I think we have to distinguish culpability from a range of apt emotions that may be felt about a wrongdoer’s action, either by himself or by others. Sometimes a person is stricken with grief for a wrong act that he has committed, even though he had no idea that what he was doing would have such a tragic result and even if he was doing it in the belief that his act would be a great benefit to some and a loss to none. Sometimes, no matter how often we emphasise that it was not his fault, he cannot help blaming himself and tormenting himself for what he has done. That is a curiosity about our psychology that doubtless has some evolutionary explanation (evolutionary explanations are two-a-penny). Similarly, relatives and friends of the injured party, and the injured party himself if he survives, may acknowledge that the perpetrator was innocent (it was all a tragic accident), yet still feel resentment or hatred for the perpetrator. This belongs to moral psychology rather than to morals itself.

          • King Goat

            So you don’t think that ultimately being wrong in a way with very horrific consequences can actually outweigh the best of intentions and reasonableness of approach as a matter of moral ethics (as opposed to psychology)? This might make more sense to me in areas of negligence than it does purposeful or intentional acts.

          • First, you have to keep in mind that what was purposeful or intentional about the act was not the features of it that made it wrong. Second, there is no denial that the act was wrong, even horribly wrong; what is denied is only the agent’s culpability. As a matter of ethics, the act was wrong but not blameworthy.

          • King Goat

            I guess I don’t see intent and care in approach to be the final or only word on blame worthiness. Consequences matter too.

            Take the eugenist doctor who forcibly sterilized Carrie Buck, among many others. By accounts he was well intended-thinking he could alleviate the burden on society of this defective woman’s possible progeny-and he had care in his coming to that decision. I’d have no trouble if, when he later found out he had acted both on a mistaken fact (Buck was hardly ‘defective’ in the sense he thought) and a mistaken moral theory (a utilitarianism that may itself be faulty even if it were carried out with the correct internal logic here, which it wasn’t) he not only felt guilty as a psychological matter, but felt he had actually done something wrong and blameworthy (there were doctors working at the time, with the same factual information available, who concluded these operations were wrong and refused to do them).

          • I think you are still tending to run rogether wrongness with blameworthiness. See what you say here:

            “he not only felt guilty as a psychological matter, but felt he had actually done something wrong and blameworthy”

            I guess we all agree that he did something wrong. We may not be surprised if the doc feels guilty or blameworthy. The question is whether he was blameworthy. That question can still be answered ‘no.’ (I don’t know the facts of the particular case.)

          • King Goat

            I thought I was careful to note the possible distinction between the two with the word ‘and,’ meaning both could be, but wouldn’t necessarily be, present there.

          • Sean II

            “…evolutionary explanations are two-a-penny…”

            Pro tip: there’s an easy way to separate Just So Stories (which really are two-a-penny) from legitimate Evo Psych (which is precious, promising, and necessary).

            The real stuff sticks close to the Breeder’s Equation – i.e. tells a story where “X was favored because it’s a) heritable, and b) advantageous in the sense of helping people with it produce more surviving children”. And of course that story better be credible as to scale. Example:

            Bad evo psych: “Muslims are hostile to European values because 200 years of Crusading imprinted a fear of white faces, Christian symbols, etc.”

            That’s nonsense. Because it doesn’t say how Muslims with Europhobia are supposed to have had more kids than those without. Nor whether they could pass this on, even if they did. In fact the opposite is more likely: the more Europhobic a 12th Century Muslim was, the more likely he was to fight and die and NOT leave descendants. Plus on top of that the theory doesn’t scale. 200 years of pressure that stopped 900 years ago are supposed to produce this massive observable effect today? With no drift? Total bullshit.

            Good evo psych: “Arabs and other MENA people remain highly clannish because for a thousand years the best way to have more surviving children in that region was by being (or marrying) a polygamous patriarch, or by marrying (inbreeding) into an extended family defense network. People who failed to do these things either didn’t get to have wives, or produced kids who promptly became corpses and slaves”.

            Bad evo psych: “But isn’t cousin marriage deleterious? Why didn’t selection press against that enough to stop it?”

            Good evo psych: “Cousin marriage is bad, but statistically its a lot better than being a corpse, a slave, or an unfertilized egg.”

            Anyway that’s the mark of quality in this bazaar. Shop accordingly.

          • King Goat

            I know I shouldn’t, but this seems to trigger a question I often have for evo psychology. How does part two of your ‘good’ example get satisfied? A strong patriarchal figure to attach yourself to in order to increase your chances of having surviving offspring makes sense. And it makes sense that there might be a genetic trigger selected for that which would increase a predisposition to attraction to certain physical measures of strength (‘those biceps! Those glutes! Sigh’). But as pointed out by Veblen long ago, the current patriarch is more likely to be the relatively effete great grandson of the virile big man, and his ‘strength’ is displayed by culturally coded markers (‘look at all the camels he owns, and all those fancy high teas!’). The genetics selects a predisposition that latches on to this? And it changes (the more austere displays of strength from Mohammed vs those of the satraps before him). Only by pushing the level of abstraction far out can you make them similar (they’re all displays of strength!).

            Maybe more importantly, wouldn’t Occam’s Razor work against the evo theory. You don’t need to posit a long process of selection and genes working to produce predispositions to find different, vague, high level of abstraction displays of strength to be attractive. Any sensible person born in that culture and learns the significance of the cultural indicators of power is rationally going to figure out there lot will be eastier if they attach themselves to those that have more of them. No predisposition need be posited at all, just buy in to what works (and telling your kids that it works if it’s not obvious to them).

          • Ben Kennedy

            The concept of the “alpha” is present in lots of non-human species, so it seems to be a fairly useful adaptation. Seeing this pattern in animals suggests that the tendency to defer to authority, or even the the entire concept of “legitimate authority” is simply baked into our brains through evolution. We just happen to be smart enough to put a name to it

          • King Goat

            Isn’t the alpha in non human species almost always tied to indicators of physical strength and health?

      • You have to be a bit careful with the word “right”, because it has two very distinct meanings, “correct” and “moral”.

        If I do something in good faith that would reasonably be expected to benefit others, but something goes wrong with my plans and someone gets hurt, my action was not “right” in the sense of “correct” but was “right” in the sense of “moral”. The word “wrong” has the similar problem in reverse.

        • I disagree. I think we see the same distinction but disagree over the labels. If you act in good faith but end up killing someone, you have done something wrong, but you may be blameless. We might distinguish two senses of ‘moral.’ The action was immoral in the sense of being a wrong act, but the agent was moral in the sense of being blameless.

  • Hi Fernando. I appreciate your insights into this matter. I have a few questions about your approach.

    1) Why not simply have a “justified killing theory” instead of a just war theory? Is there something special about war that lets us meet a lower bar for killing than we normally would have to meet? You don’t necessarily have to argue all that in this piece, but I would appreciate a link to someone who has made such an argument.

    2) “If a military engagement kills more innocents than the expected number of innocents that the engagement seeks to save, then it is collaterally disproportionate.”

    Yes, I agree, but I think you’re underselling the wrongness of killing. Isn’t killing actually several times worse than letting die? You’ll probably familiar with the thought experiment about the doctor faced with choosing between letting five patients die, and killing an innocent person to harvest his organs and thereby save the five sick people. It seems wrong to kill the innocent person even to save five others, so that suggests that perhaps the ratio necessary to justify killing an innocent is to save at least five people.

    3) “So, unfortunately, judging the Syria airstrikes under JWT is not possible until these consequences are known.”

    This seems like a mistake to me. Don’t you think actions should be judged on their expected consequences instead of their actual consequences? Jason Brennan has a number of examples of this sort of thing in “Against Democracy,” where he points out that government commits a wrong when it acts irresponsibly (such as by making decisions with a Ouija board), regardless of whether using a Ouija board produces a good outcome in that particular instance.

    4) It seems intuitive to me that in order to justify large upfront costs, like killing exploding bombs in crowded places, the long-term effects of a policy must be both large and highly likely. The greater uncertainty there is, the more we should lean toward non-intervention.

    Thanks for your essay, Fernando.

  • I think you are wrong, for the following reason – you ignore what we could have done with the ~$100 million we spent on this. The best interventions we know of for saving lives in developing nations cost around $3300 per life saved, so we could have saved something on the order of 30,000 lives with that money. Whether or not the Syrian strike did net good is debatable…my gut says the balance is pretty close to zero….but I don’t think there is any plausible scenario where it saved 30,000 lives AND not only avoided supervening blowback but created just the opposite.

    Of course, as a libertarian, I suppose you object to this on principle, but math is math.

    • You could have said, “but utility is utility.” But utility might not be the only consideration. Suppose that we have an obligation to stop people being murdered. By spending money on saving lives by giving food to the starving, or investing in healthcare or clean water or whatever, INSTEAD of spending it on Syrian air strikes, we may be defaulting on that obligation. Whereas we do not have an obligation, or as stringent an obligation, to save lives in the other ways. I am not saying that this is true; I am just outlining a possibility.

      • That’s what I was implying in my last statement. Libertarians, for reasons that don’t make any sense to me, draw a huge distinction between being killed by other humans and being killed by anything else. The former is something we have a responsibility to stop, to the extent that we can use force to take resources from others in order to use those resources to try to prevent the murders. But if the killer is poverty, disease, natural disaster, etc, then the libertarian believes in “let ’em die, or beg for charity”, and that using force to procure resources to prevent those deaths is morally unacceptable. I do not see any difference between the two situations that matters. Dead is dead, and if anything, the latter deaths are more miserable and painful than the former on average.

        • DST

          Okay, I’ll bite. Libertarians generally think it’s okay to use force to stop a third party from being injured by violence, but only if that force is directed at the person committing the violence. The justification seems twofold: (1) the force ostensibly stops the violence; and (2) the target of the force, the actor originating the violence, has no claim against such force, as he through his actions forfeited any rights against such force.

          In the case of natural disasters, poverty, etc., it’s difficult to find a bad actor against whom force can be so justified. One example would be if A stole from B, we might be justified in using force on A to recover B’s property. But if someone is poor without any wrongdoing on the part of any other actor, there’s no one against whom the use of force can be justified.

          Humanitarian belligerence is still belligerence.

          • Unless you are an anarchist who does not believe in cops, military, and the courts, you don’t limit your force to those committing the violence. Instead, you direct it at your fellow taxpayers, whom you force to participate in your protection racket whether they support it or not. Once you admit that this is acceptable (and it is!), why limit it to intentionally-caused harm?

          • DST

            1. Were you talking about running a police force and military in your initial post? If so, it wasn’t clear.

            2. You’ve confused purely redistributive government spending with provision of public goods. While provision of public goods is likely to have some redistributive effect, such redistribution is not the primary purpose. So, forcing a citizen to contribute to a police force stopping terrorist attacks (to pick one example) *may* be just and have an incidental redistributive effect. But forcing one citizen to pay into a fund *just because* he has too much money, and paying out to another citizen *just because* he has too little, is purely redistributive, and can never be justified.

            3. To take one example, I think it *might* be just to make the citizens of New Orleans fund a system of dikes to prevent flooding of their city, but only because they are the recipients of the public good such a system provides. But it would be unjust to force all Americans to fund such a system, as most of them aren’t receiving any benefits.

            4. Is your reference to a minimal state as a “protection racket” tongue-in-cheek? I’m assuming it is.

          • I think it was obvious that I was talking about cops and courts. Unless you are an anarchist who fancifully believes we could get by with “private” security forces and courts, you have to believe in forcibly taking money from your neighbors (aka, taxation) to pay for it. Once you’ve admitted this is just, the can of worms is entirely open.

            I also deny your argument about “redistribution”. You CHOOSE to live in our country and maintain your citizenship. As such, you have agreed fully and willingly to pay the government whatever lawful taxation our political process determines, in return for the benefits the government provides you. Tax money is not your money, it’s the government’s money, right from the get-go, and regardless of who “mans the till” and touches the money first. Since it is the government’s money, the “distribution” it chooses is the initial one, not a “re” anything.

            Small-balling infrastructure as you suggest does not help anything. It ends up costing more, having critical gaps, and is poorly coordinated. You pay for NO dikes just like they pay to fix the out-dated bridge near your hometown. It all cancels out pretty close to evenly.

          • DST

            You CHOOSE to live in our country and maintain your citizenship.

            Bullshit. I didn’t choose to be born in this country, and was never given the option to be subject its laws. You’re relying on a justification for political authority that’s been throughly debunked.

            Tax money is not your money, it’s the government’s money, right from the get-go, and regardless of who “mans the till” and touches the money first.

            Jesus Christ, dude, that’s stupid, even by the standard of statist logic.

            Small-balling infrastructure as you suggest does not help anything.

            I never suggested that infrastructure be small-balled, just that funding be limited to the scope of the benefits. It doesn’t matter how large or small a project is, if I live outside the zone of benefits, I shouldn’t have to pay for it.

            You pay for NO dikes just like they pay to fix the out-dated bridge near your hometown.

            Right, that’s what I’m saying is unjust.

            It all cancels out pretty close to evenly.


          • You are an adult, I presume. Leave and renounce if you don’t like the deal. It’s not hard. Said as a serial ex-pat, btw.


            Here is DOT spending. It tracks very closely to $100/person across the states.

          • TimStarr

            You are just a theftist.

          • To the same extent you are a mooch who believes he should be able to live in our nation for free (or close to it) despite the fact that it multiplies your earnings ten-fold or more. You’d be a dirt poor farmer praying for rain and protection from the local thugs if it weren’t for the government. If the government taxed us all 90%, it would still be leaving us more than we “earned” on our own.

          • TimStarr

            Nope. The vast majority of the Federal budget consists of transfer payments that don’t protect me at all. The most you could justify would be police, courts, & military, but there have been non-state versions of those that work better, too. You are still just a Theftist.

          • If you don’t understand how insurance benefits you, you are stupid. And free to leave the deal any time you like.

          • TimStarr

            Actually, since New Orleans is one of the biggest ports in the USA, and a large portion of our national trade goes through it, there are significant positive externalities to having NOLA be a functional city. Those benefits are hard to quantify, however, but your justification for takings could easily be extended beyond the city limits, to the state level, etc.

          • DST

            Possibly, but if the need for a large port to be in that exact location is strong enough, whoever operates the port would have a strong incentive to fund the necessary infrastructure, or pay high enough wages to attract workers willing to fund it, or to pass on the cost of the infrastructure to customers, and so on. It’s very difficult to argue that someone in CA, with no connection whatsoever to LA, should be coerced into funding it.

            I imagine markets are highly likely to solve the problem, but if they’re not, and coercive taxation must be used, it stands to reason that the taxing power should be used judiciously, and applied to only those people who have a clearly established and immediate benefit. Only then can you be sure that living there is actually worth the cost of maintaining the dikes. Having everyone in the country pay into a huge pot that gets doled out to politically popular projects produces tremendous amounts of inefficiencies.

          • TimStarr

            Agree that the further away the taxpayers are the less they benefit.

        • TimStarr

          Intentional killing is an adaptive threat. Adaptive threats can scale up easily if unhindered. Letting mass-murderers get away with using weapons of mass destruction encourages them to scale up. This is not the case with poverty, disease, natural disaster, etc. Those are not adaptive threats – their frequency and magnitude do not increase if we fail to protect against them.

          • What relevance does that have other than standard cost-benefit? It’s a difference in probability-weighted magnitude, not kind.

          • TimStarr

            Answers the question of why we don’t advocate government protection of relatively constant, rare, low-magnitude risks.

          • Air pollution kills 200,000 Americans every year. Terrorists average about 80 with a median around 30.

            So you agree we should be spending a fortune combatting the former and nearly nothing on the latter?

    • Jeff R.

      Or we could have just wasted it on subsidizing the consumption habits of poor and middle class Americans, which is the far more likely scenario.

    • TimStarr

      30K lives over what time period? If this deters the proliferation of chemical weapons, the poor man’s nuke, then that could easily spare 30K lives given a long enough time period. The counter-factual is hard to estimate, thus hard to argue against.

      • A few years at most. These interventions are well understood.

        The big problem with your argument is “if”. I don’t see how Trump’s flip-flopping inconsistency deters anything. At best, it might cause Assad to go back to barrel bombs for a while (oh wait, he already did!) and kill people with the morally acceptable tools of fire, shrapnel, and building collapse. And of course, we have to figure in blowback, which will offset this.

        You are right that this “hard to estimate” but my gut instinct is “about zero”. Not thirty thousand guaranteed plus side benefits of making friends rather than enemies.

        • TimStarr

          Compare to a world in which all dictators are free to develop all the WMDs they want, which they can then use to arm terrorists, and/or deter others who would stop them. Assad tried to get nukes, was stopped by Israel. How many lives did that save? How much worse would he be with nukes today?

          • Nuclear non-proliferation generally saves lives in a cost effective manner. Bombing desert does not.

  • disqus_n4zRDXbq33

    Enjoying this piece a lot. I’ve just gotten to the effectiveness point and feel a bit sceptical about the way that argument’s structured: ‘an intervention isn’t justified if it’s made retrospectively ineffective by the would-be deterred party ignoring it’ seems to make good (the best?) intentions and perhaps precautions, utterly hostage to luck or subsequent circumstance. I always thought justification was about intent rather than results. Perhaps the role of effectiveness has been unpacked fully elsewhere and I’ve not read that material. Perhaps a kind of ‘reasonable precautions’ version of good intent is required for justification, it not being enough to e.g. incompetently or ignorantly intervene with mere good intentions. But even then if all sound precautions are taken, and evil actors choose to wreak havoc nonetheless, making the intervention ineffective to realise its purpose of deterrence, I’m not sure that of itself undermines the justification.

  • Fernando Teson

    Thanks all for the comments. I’m traveling and will respond when I get home.

  • M Lister

    “subject to the two conditions I specified (that the strikes must be an effective deterrent…”

    We have lots and lots of experience of firing off a good sized number of cruise missiles at other countries, but it seems pretty clear that we have very little experience of this being and “effective deterrent”. Are there any clear and uncontroversial examples? I can’t think of any off my head, but would glad to get some where it’s at least largely uncontroversial that such actions achieved an aim that was both itself justified and intended. If I’m right that we have very little reason to think that actions like this will prove to be an “effective deterrent” (or really, any deterrent at all) then the bar to doing it should be really high. (*) It’s pretty far from clear, I think, that the bar is met here. Given that, we should, I think., be much less sure that “Trump did the right thing.”

    (*) this leaves aside the question of whether the basic public narrative of the events leading up to the attack are correct, as is assumed in the post. The more complex “conspiracy” theories seem unlikely to be right to me – I’m generally skeptical of such complex theories – though I think the basic “public” narrative is also far from obviously true. If I felt more sure that Trump had received honest and well-thought-out information before striking, and acted on that, I might be slightly more positive towards his action, but I’m pretty sure that that’s not the case. And, we who do not have access to special information should certainly be hesitant to give full credence to the stories told now, from any perspective.

    • TimStarr

      Qadaffi didn’t sponsor much more international terrorism after Reagan bombed him.

      • King Goat

        Pan Am 103 aside I guess?

        • TimStarr

          Yes, that was his last, & was a joint venture w/ Iran.

      • M Lister

        Like King Goat, I don’t think this works. My understanding (I was alive then, but a kid, so this depends on news sources and mildly scholarly things) is that Libya was (maybe) involved in the bombing of a night club in Germany that killed some US soldiers. Reagan authorized some pretty indiscriminate bombings, that killed a fair number of people, including Qadaffi’s daughter. Libya then (again, supposedly – my impression is that the case is not 100% tight, though pretty good) set up the bombing of the Pan Am flight, killing quite a lot of people. Sanctions, not bombings, were the response to that, crippling Libya’s economy. That doesn’t seem like a very strong argument in favor of bombings as an effective response to me!

  • Jack Knudson

    This reminds me of an essay by Robert Axelrod on the Evolution of Cooperation. In it he covers detailed research on hundreds of rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The conclusion of the paper was that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is best played by a predictable, reciprocal, and sometimes punitive strategy. The strategy shown to work best was tit-for-tat. Might the Syrian situation be similar? It seems like an act against humanity was drawn on civilians in Syria by Assad, and an action by the US which punishes Assad’s behavior (given we have some degree of certainty that the US action will have the intended effect) seems to be the best option given insight on game theory. Tit-for-tat might work the best and justify intervention.

  • Uriel Alexis Farizeli Fiori

    one thing that was taken as a prior, but quite proved, is that Assad actually ordered the chemical attacks. if this turns out to have been anything else (a rebel attack gone wrong, a mismanagement of chemical weapons, etc) then the jus cause theory falls pretty quickly, doesn’t it?

    also, a more general question: even if there is a just cause for war, why should the USG pursue it? especially in view of the resources it takes from its taxpayers.

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  • J Peterson II

    By this “just war theory” the rest of the world has the right to savagely lay waste to the continental United States for what it has done to Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, etc.