Ethics, ISIS & Assad
The Proper Use Of American Military Force In Iraq and Syria
By Professor Kai Draper (University of Delaware)
November 05, 2016 Picture: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters.
This article is part of The Critique’s November/December 2016 Issue “The Great War Series (Part III): Defeating ISIS & Restoring The Middle East”.
I. The ethics of war
Let me begin by putting my moral cards on the table. I am a just war theorist, though I reject the traditional just war theory that still dominates public discussions of the ethics of war. The moral framework that I have defended elsewhere is one in which individual moral rights exist and stand as substantial obstacles to the justification of war. On my view, war would almost never be justified but for the possibility of justifying violence on grounds of defense (self-defense or other-defense). It is no infringement upon the rights of those who take part in unjust aggression, or who otherwise pose a threat of unjust harm, to inflict upon them necessary and proportionate harm in defense of their potential victims. If a group of ISIS fighters want to execute Yazidis who refuse to convert to Islam, for example, and the only way to stop those fighters from doing so is to kill them, it would be absurd to suggest that they have a right not to be killed in defense of their potential victims. Their right to life does not shield their own attempts to violate the right to life of others.
In the international realm no less than in a domestic context, then, not all violence is unjust violence (i.e., violence that infringes upon rights), and violence that secures rights without infringing upon rights is almost always justified. Indeed, in the case of police and military actions, the ideal is always to secure rights without infringing upon rights. Even those war efforts that secure the rights of some, however, typically fall short of this ideal by infringing upon the rights of others. This is because war almost always involves undertaking military operations that infringe upon the rights of the innocent bystanders who are predictably harmed by those operations. The war against ISIS is no exception here. The United States government has conceded that its airstrikes have quite predictably killed noncombatants, and there can be little doubt that many of those noncombatants were innocent bystanders in the sense that they had not taken part in posing any unjust threat and hence could not justifiably be harmed on grounds of defense.
In extreme circumstances, however, sometimes infringements upon rights are justified—or at least that is the conclusion that anyone who takes moral rights seriously must hold to avoid antiwar pacifism. That conclusion conforms to moral common sense. To offer a hypothetical example, if I am being chased by a would-be murderer and the only way I can escape with my life is to take your car from you without your consent, my seizure of your car is an infringement upon your right to your car. But it is a justifiable infringement given that my interest in not being murdered far exceeds your interest in not having your car temporarily taken and used by me to save my life. Emergencies sometimes warrant infringements upon rights.
Recognizing the justifiability of some infringements upon rights helps us to make moral sense out of the United States policy in Afghanistan of compensating the families of noncombatants killed as a side effect of US military operations. Even though the United States is not conceding that the operations that killed those noncombatants were unjustified, they concede that rights were infringed, and even justifiable infringements of rights demand compensation.
Within my moral framework, then, one important question to ask about the use of American military force in Iraq and Syria is whether, on balance, its objectives are not only attainable, but also valuable enough to justify the infringement upon rights that it requires. Not being privy to all of the relevant information, I cannot give a definitive answer to that question. What I want to do instead is to identify some of the relevant considerations that should be taken into account by anyone who wants to answer that question.
II. Defeating ISIS
One stated American objective in Iraq and Syria is to defeat ISIS. I have not seen an official definition of “defeat”, but let me propose an unofficial one: I take it that to defeat ISIS in a given nation is to deprive ISIS of its territory in that nation and to substantially reduce the number of its fighters there. Given this definition of “defeat”, is it justifiable for the United States to use military force to help defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria?
It is undeniable that ISIS has unjustly harmed many and poses a clear threat of unjustly harming many more. According to a July, 2016 New York Times analysis, ISIS has coordinated or inspired terrorist attacks in 21 nations (not including Iraq and Syria) resulting in more than 1,200 deaths. ISIS is also recognized by the United Nations as a perpetrator of genocide against Yazidis in Iraq. ISIS continues to pose a direct threat to lives and freedom of inhabitants of the territory it controls, and in a November 30, 2015 opinion piece in the Washington Post, Jeff McMahan recommends war against ISIS in Syria primarily on that basis:
“The threat to those in the West, however, is minor compared to what many of the roughly eight million people who live — or die — under the rule of the Islamic State are being forced to endure today. Entire cities, such as Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, have been under the Islamic State’s control for more than a year. In areas where they rule, beheadings in public spaces are daily occurrences. Execution by the sword is the penalty for offenses including apostasy, blasphemy, and homosexuality. According to many members of the Islamic State, indications of apostasy among Muslims include shaving, voting, selling alcohol and being Shiite rather than Sunni”.
Of course, it does not follow from the fact that ISIS poses an unjust threat of doing great harm that waging war against ISIS is justified. Defending the innocent against an unjust threat is always a worthy cause, but just war theorists have long recognized (and any sensible person would agree) that a worthy cause is not sufficient for justified recourse to war. Michael Walzer—he and Jeff McMahan are the two most prominent contemporary just war theorists—doubts that the US war effort against ISIS is justified, because he doubts that it is likely to succeed. Thus, writing for Dissent a few days after McMahan’s piece appeared in the Post, he asks of the US war effort against ISIS:
“Is it a just war? Certainly ISIS is an enemy that one wants to defeat. But a war isn’t just—according to just war theory and international law—unless there is a reasonable prospect of success. And this peculiar war offers no such prospect. President Obama claims that the US is leading a “coalition,” but there is no effective coalition and, so far as I can tell, no agreed-upon end-in-view. Suppose that ISIS is defeated, what then? Are the Sunni Muslims in the caliphate to be returned to Shiite rule in Iraq and Alawite rule in Syria? That isn’t a prospect likely to inspire any of our Sunni allies. A just war must aim at a just ending, but this war is being fought without any likely end and without any vision of what a morally just end would look like. Without those two, I find it hard to defend the current air war—which may well kill more innocent people than ISIS fighters and produce more ISIS fighters than it kills”.
The disagreement between McMahan and Walzer prompted an immediate response from Fernando Tesón in Lawfare. He sides with McMahan against Walzer by suggesting that McMahan is recommending a humanitarian mission to protect people against ISIS and does not need to show that there is any likelihood that those who are protected from ISIS will ever enjoy a reasonably just political order. That seems right. The just cause for waging war against ISIS is to substantially reduce the huge threat of unjust harm posed by ISIS, not to establish a just political order in Iraq or Syria.
Defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria is sufficient to achieve that just cause. ISIS cannot impose its twisted notions of criminal justice if it does not have territory to govern. Controlling territory also facilitates ISIS’s recruitment of foreign and native fighters. If ISIS is deprived of territory, people who live within that territory cannot easily be coerced or bribed to join the ranks of ISIS fighters, and ISIS’s processing centers for foreign recruits disappear. Moreover, much of the allure of ISIS for many foreign recruits is the promise of living under sharia law in an Islamic caliphate. Without territory, there is no caliphate and so that allure disappears. Depriving ISIS of territory would also reduce its economic assets, as ISIS would be unable to levy taxes or seize oil. And if ISIS cannot pay its fighters, it won’t have as many fighters.
It might be added that, once ISIS is defeated in Iraq, the government of Iraq would at least have the opportunity to address reconciliation with the Sunnis in Iraq. A Sunni region where Sunnis would have the degree of autonomy that the Kurds enjoy in the Kurdistan Region is, by all accounts, highly unlikely in the short term, but a region in which Sunnis enjoyed greater autonomy and better treatment by Bagdad than before is not outside the realm of possibility.
“The just cause for waging war against ISIS is to substantially reduce the huge threat of unjust harm posed by ISIS, not to establish a just political order in Iraq or Syria”.
The probability of defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria and thereby substantially reducing the threat of unjust harm that ISIS poses is quite high. Moreover, waging war against ISIS could be justified even if ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq and Syria. Again, the just cause here is to substantially reduce the threat of unjust harm posed by ISIS; and even if ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq and Syria, waging war against ISIS in those nations can substantially reduce that threat by means of killing ISIS fighters, depriving ISIS of territory, interfering with ISIS’s money-making enterprises, damaging ISIS’s reputation and standing, securing borders to interfere with ISIS’s recruitment of foreign fighters, etc. At this stage of the war, ISIS has already been weakened in these and other ways and the prospects for further progress are good.
To be fair to Walzer, though, perhaps the thought is that, unless a new and improved political order can be secured in the areas that are freed from ISIS control, the liberation effort is a disproportionate use of violence because life for Sunnis under Shiite rule in Iraq or Alawite rule in Syria is no better, or at least not much better, than life under ISIS rule; and wresting territory from ISIS, as Walzer puts it, “may well kill more innocent people than ISIS fighters and produce more ISIS fighters than it kills.”
Furthermore, if Sunnis in Iraq and Syria continue to live under bad government, it is not unlikely that some other extremist group (or ISIS 2.0) will emerge and extreme violence will return with them. Indeed, in Syria, there are already extremist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front that would be happy to fill any void left by ISIS. Moreover, defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria will result in hundreds of thousands of new refugees and is likely to make ISIS much more violent prior to defeat if not afterwards as well. The remnants of ISIS might even decide to return to the bombing tactics that Al Qaeda in Iraq used during the US occupation of Iraq. A defeated ISIS is still capable of inflicting great harm.
It appears, then, that there are no really good options here, and the task of doing a serious cost-benefit analysis of the various options that do exist is daunting. Be that as it may, policy makers have a responsibility to do the best cost-benefit analysis they can as a basis for their decisions. Nor should that claim be controversial, for there is no respectable perspective on the ethics of war that does not make the justifiability of waging war depend at least partly on the likelihood and value of the various possible outcomes of waging war.
Nevertheless, there are two factors that help the case for the use of American military force to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. One is that in a proper cost-benefit analysis of waging war, the harm to those who can justifiably be harmed on grounds of defense must be discounted. (One can, after all, justifiably kill ten or 100 or even more unjust aggressors if that is the only way to prevent them from murdering a single, innocent potential victim.) Thus, insofar as the US war effort is discriminate in the sense of harming mostly those who pose, or take part in posing, an unjust threat of severe harm, it more closely approximates the ideal, mentioned above, of securing rights without infringing upon rights, and with less unjust harm to justify, the case for the justifiability of the war effort becomes much more promising.
The other factor that could help to tip the cost-benefit analysis in favor of war might be surprising, because taking it into account could lead to the conclusion that, so long as every effort is taken to minimize collateral damage, President Obama would not infringe upon the rights of some of the innocent bystanders that US forces would kill as collateral damage should he choose to continue to authorize military strikes to help wrest territory from ISIS. The idea here is that, if some of the inhabitants of the areas controlled by ISIS reasonably want the liberation effort to proceed, and would not change their minds even if they understood the risks to them of that effort, then even though in fact some percentage of those individuals will be harmed, that fact poses no moral obstacle to President Obama’s authorizing the military strikes in question [See Steinhoff for a more detailed version of this argument].
Perhaps an analogy will help to clarify this suggestion. Suppose that I am the hostage of a villain who has me in the trunk of his car and is fleeing the police in a high-speed chase. Suppose further that it is clear that he intends to kill me as soon as he escapes. Finally, suppose that the police cars in pursuit of the villain are no match for the villain’s car, and, knowing this, the police commander decides to order a sniper to shoot out the tires of the villain’s car, because that is their only hope of preventing him from escaping and then, in all probability, killing me.
Of course, shooting out those tires imposes a substantial risk on me because it might well cause the villain’s car to spin out of control. Indeed, I could easily be killed. But I am much more likely to be killed if the villain escapes. Moreover, I know all of this, and so I reasonably want the tires to be shot out. If I get my wish, but regrettably I am injured or even killed as a consequence, I don’t think that my rights were infringed upon by the commander. Rights protect interests and autonomy, but my interest in survival was respected by the commander. It was that interest that motivated his order to shoot out the tires. Nor was my autonomy disrespected by the commander, for he had good reason to think that, if he could have consulted with me, I would have asked him to take the risk he took.
Those living under ISIS rule who would reasonably prefer that the United States proceed with its liberation effort are relevantly similar to me in the analogy. ISIS and Obama are relevantly similar to the villain and the police commander, respectively. If I am right that the analogy is a good one, then the rights of those who would reasonably prefer that Obama pursue the sort of liberation effort that he has decided to pursue in Iraq and Syria are not infringed by Obama’s decision to pursue that effort, and that holds even for those who are regrettably killed by that effort.
Of course, this consideration is a significant one only if a large number of individuals under ISIS control would reasonably prefer the planned liberation effort to go forward in spite of the hardships and personal risks that it would involve. Unfortunately, I do not have enough information to offer even a rough estimate of the relevant number here, but perhaps others do. No doubt some of those who are the daily victims of ISIS brutality would prefer a liberation effort. In an October 19, 2016 Washington Post opinion piece, two Yazidi activists claim that some 3,700 women and children remain trapped in Mosul, held as sexual slaves. What they describe is horrifying:
“Every time our phones ring, the voice on the other end could belong to a woman or girl enslaved by the Islamic State. It’s difficult to convey what it feels like to hear the agonized voices. Recently, a woman whom we were unable to help begged us to carry her message to anyone in power. She said, “Tell them: ‘If you can’t save us, please bomb us. We can’t bear to live.”
This woman is more than willing to accept the risks of a liberation effort. Still, we cannot assume that she is representative, and it is worrisome that in Mosul the risks of the liberation effort are especially high for Yazidi slaves. One concern is that the liberation effort might lead ISIS fighters to murder their slaves. A second concern is that, because the slaves live with their captors, they are especially likely to be harmed as a side effect of attacks against ISIS fighters.
As a group, Sunnis are less oppressed by ISIS than Yazidis, but they constitute the vast majority of those living under ISIS rule, and so it is important to ask the question, “How many Sunnis living under ISIS rule reasonably want a liberation effort?” If a large percentage of them do, then the case for defeating ISIS is much stronger, especially if McMahan is right that the best case for defeating ISIS is the humanitarian one.
In Syria, the case for US participation in the defeat of ISIS is even stronger than it is in Iraq, because in Syria liberation seems inevitable in the sense that, regardless of what the United States does, ISIS will lose at least most of its territory. If the Syrian Army, National Defense Forces and the Russians do the liberating, there is every reason to believe that the bombing used in the liberation effort will be more indiscriminate than if the United States does the bombing. Thus, Syrians living under ISIS control have a very good reason to want US intervention there.
III. Deposing Assad
Although I am inclined to think that a strong case can be made that the United States can justifiably wage war to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, I am extremely skeptical about claims that the US mission in Syria should be expanded to include regime change in Syria. I recognize that the Assad regime has proven to be a very brutal one, inflicting far more unjust harm than ISIS, but it seems to me that the likely alternatives could be even worse, and that there is little that the United States can do to establish a just political order in Syria. That conclusion is somewhat tentative, because my information about the status of the civil war in Syria is limited, but I would like to offer four other considerations that counsel against expanding the US mission in Syria, considerations that are sometimes overlooked, or at least not taken seriously enough.
1.There is no such thing as a genuine long-term US commitment to a war of choice.
It is one thing to ask what President Obama or the 114th Congress should do about the civil war in Syria. It is a more abstract question to ask what the United States Congress or the United States government should do, and it is a very abstract question to ask what the United States or the community of nations should do. The more abstract questions can have practical relevance because answering them might indicate what policies should be chosen if they are or become policy options, or should be promoted so that they become policy options. But they can also be irrelevant or even foster confusion because an answer provides direct advice only to an abstract entity (e.g., the United States of America), rather than to any concrete individual with real choices (e.g., President Obama).
With that point in mind, suppose, for the sake of argument, that our conclusion is that the United States should topple the Assad regime and then stay the course by remaining in Syria to exert influence on the nature of the new regime, provide the military support needed to ensure that the new regime survives, and perhaps to perform administrative functions until the new regime is fully functioning. How much relevance would that conclusion have on what US policy makers should do now? The answer has to be: not much. For whereas the next president and congress can take the first step and topple the Assad regime, they cannot force future presidents or congresspersons to share their vision so that the United States follows through with this mission. And if taking the first step without following through is apt to be a disaster, it would be a mistake for current policy makers to take the first step without carefully considering the likelihood that others will finish the job. Staying the course in a war of choice is like a relay race where no runner can be sure if the next runner, or the one after that, will drop the baton or even quit the race to go pick flowers. That counts especially against wars of choice that require long-term investments of military resources.
“If taking the first step without following through is apt to be a disaster, it would be a mistake for current policy makers to take the first step without carefully considering the likelihood that others will finish the job”.
Would using American military force in pursuit of regime change in Syria be a war of that sort? Not necessarily. But what alternatives are there? Certainly no one should think that the sort of hit and run operation that deposed Gaddafi and then let Libya descend into chaos would be a good idea. Allowing the hard power amongst various factions in Syria to determine the nature of a new regime would not bode well for the future of Syria. There remains the possibility of supporting the more moderate rebel groups militarily and then pressuring Assad to “voluntarily” step down as part of a negotiated end to the civil war and a smooth transition of power. Quite frankly, I cannot see how that approach could work without maintaining a long-term military presence in Syria to secure the new regime in place. Nor do I have any reason to believe that the new regime would be much better than the old one unless a substantial US military presence in Syria is used as leverage to influence the character of the new regime.
“No one should think that the sort of hit and run operation that deposed Gaddafi and then let Libya descend into chaos would be a good idea”.
2.Military resources are limited.
A second consideration that too often escapes notice also counts strongly against wars of choice, including regime change in Syria. In deciding whether to remain focused on ISIS, or to expand the US mission in Syria, it is crucial for US policy makers to keep in mind that if we devote resources to the civil war in Syria we reduce our capacity to address other threats that might arise and, to a lesser degree, our capacity to use resources for nonmilitary purposes. Potentially, one could even reduce the military’s ability to fulfill its core missions. Nor is this worry directed merely at the threat of over-stretched military budgets. War-weariness on the part of the citizenry can undermine our capacity to address genuine threats to our own nation or to an ally. It can also encourage other nations to commit acts of international aggression if they perceive, correctly or even incorrectly, that public opposition in the United States to a new military venture means that there will be no US military response to their aggression.
What are the core missions of the United States armed forces? There are at least three such missions. Its first and primary mission is to prevent and, if necessary, repel external aggression against the United States. Because it is so powerful, the United States military performs that task brilliantly even when no shots are fired, and there is no nation in the world that could rationally expect a favorable outcome should it pit its military against that of the United States. Limited acts of terrorism against the United States are achievable—and the use of force to destroy specific terrorist targets, for example, can be a part of the US military’s fulfilling its primary mission—but a full-scale invasion of the United States would end in the destruction or surrender of the invading forces.
The same military superiority that provides security against invasion also provides security against other international crimes. To cite just one example, militarily weak nations can be robbed in the sense of being coerced to provide resources to a militarily stronger nation. Due to its military strength, that is not something the United States has to worry about.
Preventing attacks and other crimes against the United States is not the only immensely valuable service that the United States armed forces provide. The second core mission of those forces is to provide security for a large group of US friends and allies. Japan, for example, has little military capability, but as a friend of the United States, it sits comfortably under the US military umbrella. That benefits Japan, of course, but it also benefits the United States, partly because the United States has an economic interest in Japan’s security. Of course, sometimes providing security to allies requires the use of force. The Kurdistan Region in Iraq is an ally of the United States, and the help that the United States provided when ISIS threatened the borders of that ally involved using military force to fulfill the second core mission.
There is also value in having armed forces that can respond in a limited way to effectively address humanitarian crises and even smaller threats to human lives and freedoms. I regard this as a third core mission. Sometimes that involves the use of force, as illustrated by the rescue of hostages captured by Somali pirates, and by the airstrikes that helped rescue thousands of Yazidis stranded in the Kinjar Mountains; but as illustrated by the military’s contribution to relief efforts in Pakistan in 2005 after the devastating earthquake there, fulfilling this third mission sometimes requires no force at all.
Forcing regime change for the sake of spreading democracy, on the other hand, is not a core military mission, nor should it be. The United States has a terrible record here, as most of its attempts to use military force to create well-functioning democracies have failed. Spreading democracy is a worthy goal, but using military force for that purpose is all too often a waste of limited military resources.
3.Though low, the risk of nuclear war should be taken seriously.
Fighting ISIS in Syria could have been an opportunity to reduce rather than increase tensions between the United States and Russia. For the sake of US security, US citizens and policy makers should want Russia to be a friend and ally. Such a relationship is fostered by finding common interests and cooperating to promote those interests, and in the fight against ISIS such a common interest exists. The problem, of course, has been that Russia and the United States are not on the same side in the Syrian civil war. The United States has been providing some support for some of the rebel forces in Syria, though it has found it difficult to find rebel forces that are worth supporting. Moreover, until very recently, the United States has repeatedly demanded that Assad step down. All of this has exacerbated tensions with Russia and has increased the likelihood of nuclear war with Russia, the ultimate national security disaster for the United States.
Judging by the rhetoric about Putin that has taken over Washington, I suspect that this threat is not being taken seriously enough. This is not to suggest, of course, that Putin is a good guy or that the United States should let Russia do whatever it wants in the international realm—that is a straw man. Nor do I think that I am exaggerating the threat of nuclear war. Obviously nuclear war would be an unmitigated disaster not just for the United States but for everyone involved, and that keeps the probability of its occurrence low. But given the magnitude of the possible disaster, a low probability is not good enough. It should be negligibly low.
Consider the likelihood in the foreseeable future of nuclear war between the UK and the USA. That is what I mean by negligibly low. The aim should be to make the likelihood of a nuclear war between Russia and the USA that low. Instead, it is quite clear that the United States has recently been moving in the opposite direction. Blame that on Putin or Obama or on God or the devil—it doesn’t matter. A central aim of US foreign policy should be to reduce that probability, and that is best achieved by not using military force against Assad in Syria. There is a general rule that both the United States and Russia should adhere to, not just to avoid nuclear war, but to maintain international stability: hands off each other’s allies! Syria is a Russian ally, not an American ally. That is a reason to stay out of the civil war there.
4.Respect for rights requires favoring uses of resources that do not infringe upon rights.
I will end on an aspirational note. Having warned about the dangers of abstract questions about what a nation should do, I now want to point out that, if we do move to that level of abstraction, there is no question that the United States should not seek regime change in Syria. First, everyone knows that no one can reliably predict the outcome of regime change in Syria, and so the benefits one might hope to result from such a change are highly speculative. Second, there are many things we can do with hundreds of millions of dollars that would have large and certain benefits and would not require killing anyone. Given that pursuing regime change in Syria would infringe upon the rights of many innocent bystanders, the United States, as a nation, shows no respect for rights by choosing to invest its resources in the military pursuit of regime change in Syria instead of using those resources for projects that would not infringe upon rights and would have large and certain benefits.
The practical import of this point is limited by the abstraction. President Obama, for example, cannot simply choose to spend the resources that might have gone to regime change and nation-building in Syria on fighting malaria in Africa. Nevertheless, the fact that the United States should change its priorities in the use of its resources does point to a need in the United States for more people to oppose the militarism that distorts American priorities, with the ultimate aim of changing values in a way that can eventually change public policy. As the Civil Rights Act and the legalization of same sex marriage illustrate, sometimes the promotion of unconventional ideas gradually causes those ideas to gain broad enough acceptance to influence public policy. Perhaps there needs to be a new kind of peace movement in the United States to push the nation to become less militaristic and so to use its resources more ethically and effectively to promote well-being and justice.
Such a change need not undermine national security. US security would be enhanced should its military be allowed to focus on its core missions. And the United States might have fewer enemies to fight if it abandoned wars of choice in favor of nonmilitary foreign aid. There is even some empirical support for this proposition. In the areas where Europeans and Americans provided earth quake relief in Pakistan in 2005, 60% of Pakistanis reported that they trusted foreigners—specifically Americans and Europeans—compared to only 20% in areas not affected by the quake. One doesn’t have to be a pacifist to believe that violence is usually not the best way to make friends.