The Syrian Dilemma: More Than Two Choices?

From a moral or ethical perspective, whether or not to conduct a limited campaign in Syria seems quite murky. On the one hand, if it proves that the Syrian regime did use chemical weapons against its own people, international law requires a response. On the other hand, if a military response, there is no clear picture of whether or not anything on the ground there will change; in fact, it might get worse and spread to other parts of that region.

From one long standing ethical tradition, known as the just war theory, the proposed bombing of Syria does not seem to meet two of its standards. First, we cannot demonstrate that we have been attacked by Syria, thus negating one justification for war–self-defense. Second, we cannot guarantee that our actions will result in a better situation in Syria; in fact, we may make matters worse.

How one addresses an ethical or moral dilemma often depends on how one sets the first question, and I would contend that we have begun with the wrong first question. It is not a just a question of whether to bomb Syria or not. It is a question about what are our alternatives? There are other alternatives now, that don’t depend on what the weapon inspectors say (and while they probably will show chemical weapons were used, they may not say who used them). First, we could go to the United Nations and present the case, knowing that Russia and China will probably veto any action, but forcing them to do so on a public stage. We could also go to the international courts since using chemical weapons is clearly an international issue. We could ask those most affected by what is happening in the Mideast to take more direct action. We could meet privately with Iran, itself a victim of chemical warfare from Iraq, and see if we could work together on this issue. We certainly could provide more assistance to the millions of Syrian refugees now fleeing that country. And, of course, we could wait for the weapon inspectors to issue a report, as France now has said it would do.

It is clear that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, a violation of international agreements; but in this case, one country going alone is not the answer. We could take a leadership role in bringing the international community together. It also seems clear that the reason most Americans (and Brits, too)are not in favor of a limited bombing campaign is that we know all too well that unintended consequences happen and that one of them might be widening war and more intervention.

So the issue may not be as clear as what is stated: To bomb or not to bomb. There are other alternatives now we could pursue, but we seem intent on investing our time, energy and even money into promoting only one. Make no mistake, dropping a hundred missiles into another country is an act of war, and war should always be a last resort.

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Filed under Philosophy and Ethics, War and Peace

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