The Great War Series (Part III)

The Great War Series (Part III)

Defeating ISIS & Restoring The Middle East

By Guillaume A.W. Attia (Editor-in-Chief)

November 05, 2016         Picture: Stringer/Reuters.


The Islamic State, known in the Arabic speaking world as “Daesh”, but more commonly referred to by the news media as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), or in diplomatic circles as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), is globally reviled for its sordid oppression of the most vulnerable non-combatants of predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike. Since brutishly taking over large swaths of Iraq and Syria as prerequisites for the establishment of its caliphate in June 2014, the organization has taken sinister pride in diligently building an infamous reputation—rivalled only by the mindless sadism of Nigeria’s Boko Haram—for violating every rule of international law; making a mockery of the rules of war and taunting the diplomatic community by orchestrating rampant crimes against humanity. Given its intentionally provocative offences, it is understandable that the group’s assertion of statehood and leadership over all Muslim people is deeply resented, not only by the leaders of many U.N. member states, including some Muslim majority nations, but more interestingly, by the irritated heads of other terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Hamas.

The death cult’s systematic administrative incompetence, only surpassed by its obscene thirst for pornographic violence and the calculated torture of its trapped denizens, simply does not command the sort of minimal respect needed to take its claim of sovereign statehood seriously. One of the elementary duties of any functioning state is to protect its citizens. ISIL has not only illicitly established its territory by violently invading already demoralized villages and towns in certain regions of civil war Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, it has gone out of its way to terrorize the constituents of the provinces it controls.

In June of 2016, the U.N released the results of an investigation by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic on the actions of ISIL since August 2014. The report provided strong indications of widespread genocide, and other crimes against humanity, against 400,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority in Syria by members of the Islamic State. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the head of the commission, explained in a statement to reporters in Geneva that “ISIS has subjected every Yazidi woman, child or man that it has captured to the most horrific atrocities (….) ISIS permanently sought to erase the Yazidis through killing, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm.” This statement echoes an earlier report by Amnesty International accusing ISIL of perpetrating “ethnic cleansing” against religious minorities, including other dwindling groups such as Coptic, Syriac and Armenian Christians, Shia Muslims, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Alawites, Mandeans, Druze, and Shabaks.

In addition to its unceasing campaign of bodily and psychic harm against religious minorities ensnared in its territories, ISIL has engaged in what UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, has characterized as the “cultural cleansing” of persecuted groups. ISIL has attempted to put this “cultural cleansing” into full effect by destroying any vestige of the oral and written traditions of ethnic groups it despises. Since its occupation of Syria and Iraq, ISIL has bulldozed, detonated, burned, and looted several irreplaceable ancient artifacts across the Arab region, including the Temple of Baal in Palmyra (Damascus, Syria), where most of the structure was blown up before the headless body of its chief Syrian archeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, was hung from a Roman column. Mosul’s Museums and the University libraries were also attacked. Parts of The Central Library of Mosul for example, were allegedly blown and incinerated, leaving the Mosul Museum to be severely damaged and looted. As if this wasn’t enough, the tomb and shrine of the prophet Yanus (known to Christians as the prophet Jonah) was destroyed, as well as the 14th century shrine of prophet Jeris (known to Catholics as St. George) and the 13th century mosque of Imam Yahya Abu al-Qassimin.

As Bokova relates, the apparent aim of all of these attacks on precious historical sites is to effectively ensure a complete genocide of certain minority groups; the physical annihilation of a people and its tangible cultural legacy: “Along with the physical persecution, they want to eliminate – to delete – the memory of these different cultures.” Bokova’s analysis was supported by Saad Eskander, the head of Iraq’s National Archives, who saw these ruinous attacks as an attempt to erase any cultural memory of these groups: “For the first time you have cultural cleansing… For the Yazidis, religion is oral, nothing is written. By destroying their places of worship … you are killing cultural memory. It is the same with the Christians – it really is a threat beyond belief.”

With the wicked two-part genocidal mission of ISIL in plain view, it is easy to sympathize with those who, along with Vice-President Joe Biden, are driven by moral indignation to heartily agree with a political plan to respond to this cultural annihilation of civilian minorities by executing the U.S’s very own military annihilation of the ‘evil’ Islamic State: “This fight is going to take time, but we are committed to seeing it through until we wipe out this evil — and we will wipe out this evil”.

According to James Dawes, talk of ISIL as “the face of evil”, as President Obama once described them, is not only intellectually stifling, but can lead to serious military errors:

“There is only one good reason to denounce a group as evil — because you plan to injure them, and calling them evil makes it psychologically easier to do so. “Evil” is the most powerful word we have to prepare ourselves to kill other people comfortably (…) We can say they are evil people doing evil things for evil ends. Or we can do the hard work of understanding the context that made them, so that we can create a context that unmakes them. If we are to have any hope of preventing the spread of extremist ideologies, we must do more than bomb the believers. We must understand them. We must be willing to continue thinking”.

In his opening essay for this Issue, Calder attempts to force us to think more seriously—and accurately—about the concept of evil as it pertains to the moral actions of ISIL. In particular, Calder defends the use of the concept of evil not only to describe the actions performed by ISIL and/or its members, but in some instances, to also describe the actions performed by ISIL’s enemies. The last point is particularly important as it helps appease those critics, such as Dawes, who rightly suspect that the abuse of the concept of evil may serve to foolishly embolden the West and its allies to make bad military decisions, while absolving themselves of any serious wrongdoing for the collateral damage that might ensue.

It is difficult to reproach Dawes and others for thinking this way. The U.S Army and its coalition forces have evidently made such mistakes in the past, and have been able to either deflect blame or minimize the significance of such errors. In a widely deplored failure of Intelligence on September 2015, Saudi-led, U.S-backed military coalition warplanes killed 131 Yemeni civilians (80 of them women), including many members of a wedding party, according to Hassan Boucenine, the Yemen director of Doctors Without Borders. Doctors Without Borders itself would have more than a bone to pick with the U.S after Saudi warplanes bombed and killed 15 people residing at a Yemeni hospital supported by their organization. As Alex Emmons of The Intercept reported back in August 2016, this was not an isolated event but part of a broader, more disturbing pattern of military behaviour, facing only feeble political backlash from the international community:

“ … for the Saudi coalition, bombing medical facilities has become business as usual. In October, the coalition bombed an MSF-supported hospital in Yemen’s Haydan district, destroying the only emergency medical facility serving 200,000 people. (Doctors Without Borders is also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF.) In December, airstrikes destroyed an MSF clinic in Taiz while doctors were treating the wounded from a nearby Saudi airstrike in a park. And in January, the coalition destroyed a hospital in Razeh district, killing five people — and killing an ambulance driver working for MSF later that month”.

The incessantly dangerous and often fatal strikes by the U.S-backed Saudi military on both private and public civilian facilities forced MSF to withdraw from northern Yemen in August 2016. It was not until the United States’ own military weapons mistakenly struck an MSF-supported hospital in the city of Kunduz (Afghanistan), killing at least 30 people, that those resentful of the U.S government’s impunity were able to experience some sort of vindication in the disciplinary action enforced by the Pentagon against military staff following a departmental investigation into the attack. Even then, the President of MSF, Meinie Nicolai, criticized this slap on the wrist for the military personnel involved in the tragedy:

“The administrative punishments announced by the U.S. today are out of proportion to the destruction of a protected medical facility, the deaths of 42 people, the wounding of dozens of others, and the total loss of vital medical services to hundreds of thousands of people. The lack of meaningful accountability sends a worrying signal to warring parties, and is unlikely to act as a deterrent against future violations of the rules of war”.

All of these fatal mistakes by the U.S army and its allies in the region, raising the civilian death toll by drone and other airstrikes to an estimated maximum of 116 according to President Obama, do not inspire confidence in the prospect of a self-righteous America ‘wiping out’ the ‘face of evil’ from the ‘face of the earth’, without unnecessary civilian bloodshed. Scepticism sets in even more strongly when one considers the fact that the U.S is already making mistakes in its fight against ISIS that have allegedly cost the lives of at least 73 civilians in Syria and indisputably killed 62 Syrian soldiers.

In light of the harsh realities of war, namely that war often involves the unintentional killing of civilians, it is appropriate to ask, as Finlay does in his essay contribution, whether targeted killings can be justified. Finlay argues that it is possible to justify the use of drones and other means of precision killing as a form of defensive war “on behalf of the Iraqi state and the people it is responsible for against a vicious, human-rights-violating movement that is attempting to subvert the former and colonize and violate the latter”. “Fighting ISIS on these grounds”, he continues “is arguably not only the right of the international community, but also at least a prima facie duty”.

Now of course, saying that in some limited cases it is morally acceptable to use deadly precision-guided weapons for a virtuous and liberating cause does little to guarantee that in the process of trying to free Yazidis and other oppressed groups from the tyranny of ISIL, some of these same vulnerable groups won’t be killed in an airstrike, even on an accurate target. As Steinhoff recognizes, it is a common feature of moral reasoning by both ethicists and the general public at large, to think that killing some to save many can sometimes be justified as a morally necessary sacrifice towards achieving an ultimate good, the lesser of two evils if you will.

However, Steinhoff argues that this form of “lesser-evil reasoning” cannot be used to justify the bombing of ISIL by Western forces. This is primarily because there is no clear evidence that this course of action will improve the conditions on the ground. In fact, there is reason to suspect that this will most likely lead to more wanton killing and facilitate the emergence of another unscrupulous occupying force that will make the lives of certain people worse than they were under ISIL.

Although Steinhoff is inclined to agree with the wisdom that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing, he agrees with Finlay that humanitarian intervention can in principle be justified, so long as it is also reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the Yazidis and other oppressed groups will in principle support such air strikes. That being said, Steinhoff prefers non-military humanitarian aid, as it is in his mind not only cheaper but also a more effective, and less dangerous way of helping the needy. In his words, this sort of humanitarian aid “seems to be an overall moral (and even pragmatic) win-win situation”.

Bazargan-Forward agrees with Finlay and Steinhoff that it is a good idea for the U.S to try to prevent ISIL from doing more harm to civilians. However, U.S assistance should go beyond Steinhoff’s call to provide aid. It should include providing the necessary resources to take care of the millions of refugees fleeing ISIL, especially given the U.S’s role in enabling the birth and rise of this murderous regime.

Draper is also amenable to the idea of humanitarian intervention, especially if as Steinhoff pointed out before, the people most likely to suffer the collateral damage of this decision to intervene are likely to accept the moral necessity of this decision, knowing full well the risks involved. However, Draper questions the notion that the US military’s mission in Syria should be widened to include deposing Assad. Like Steinhoff, he doubts that a new regime in Syria would be better than the current one.

The U.S has toyed with the idea of fully arming Syrian rebels in their dual fight against the Assad regime and the Islamic State. Since 2013, when Obama quietly authorized the gradual armament of rebels by the C.I.A, new reports by the Wall Street Journal have indicated that the C.I.A has drawn an alternative plan to supply vetted moderate rebels with more powerful weapons. Yet, getting rebels the basic battle equipment they need in the first place hasn’t been straightforward. The U.S has had to heavily rely on the financial support of Saudi Arabia to get weapons in the hands of rebels.

In June of 2016, it was reported by the Associated Press that weapons intended for Syrian rebels, shipped into Jordan by the C.I.A and financed by Saudi Arabia, were stolen and sold on the black market to arms merchants. This is exactly the sort of problem Forge insist counts against weapons research. It is clear that the soviet-era weapons currently used by ISIL to execute most of their wretched deeds were not created with ISIL’s genocidal mission in mind. Even if certain weapons are designed and manufactured with a morally defensible objective in mind, for example: liberating an oppressed group of people from the abuse of a barbaric occupying force, these weapons may ultimately end up in the hands of the wrong people (i.e. arms merchants on the black market, or worse still, maniacal groups like ISIL). This unfortunate reality, Forge argues, should give us probable cause to at least suspect that weapons research is wrong. Forge captures this concern in the following terms:

“… undertaking weapons research is always wrong because designing the means to harm does not produce something that is localised and limited in time and space, like individual tanks, guns and missiles that have a finite lifespan and wear out. Designs never wear out and may be manifest in contexts unimagined at the time they were created where unjustifiable harms are committed by, for example, ISIS in Iraq and in Syria”.

This is an interesting argument, which as compelling as it is, may take a very long time to seriously alter the way the business of war is currently conducted. In the meantime, war rages on, and although there is somewhat of a consensus among our contributors so far that (1) a full-frontal military invasion by a foreign power like the U.S to either decimate ISIL across its three major strongholds, or to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria, is an unwise foreign policy, and that (2) a humanitarian intervention, preferably non-military in nature, and refugee-focused in scope, is needed to protect Yazidis and other ethnic minorities from the genocidal ambitions of ISIL, one must concede that the current policy enacted by the Obama administration, despite its multifaceted flaws, has had some limited success.

At the height of its brutal power in the fall of 2014, ISIL’ 60,000 + armed force forcibly imposed its harsh authority on a fragile diversity of up to 10 million people geographically spread across a territory larger than the size of the United Kingdom. Today, after losing its precious Dabiq (ISIL believes that the village’s plains will be the stage of a pre-apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil) to U.S and Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebels in October of 2016, ISIL is not only in retreat, but also in danger of losing Mosul; not as symbolically important as the village of Dabiq but one of its largest quantifiable territories nonetheless. Despite its losses, the IHS conflict monitor suggests that ISIL still has control over close to 6 million people.

As ISIL continues to lose ground, one can expect the terrorist organization to revert back to orchestrating more familiar Al-Qaeda trademark attacks on foreign targets in Western nations. It is now well known that ISIL is capable of successfully carrying such attacks, especially after the shock of the November 2015 and July 2016 attacks in France. That is why it is vital to remain alert, but also to properly understand the nature of terrorism.

Coady concludes this philosophical discussion of ISIL’s moral position in the Middle East by providing a corrective against recent scholarly attempts to argue that the distinctive moral significance of terrorism lay in the socio-political outcomes of these often-bloody actions. Perhaps in attacking France for example, ISIS sought to destabilize the social order of the country by striking fear in the hearts of a people famed for their “joie de vivre”. However, Coady rightly points out that placing such emphasis on the centrality of psychosocial disturbances as an essential part of understanding terrorism fails to acknowledge the other forms terrorism has taken in the past, and may continue to take in the future.

These include “terrorist acts aimed at securing the release of political prisoners, or the removal of a newly arrived occupying force, or the removal of grave human rights abuses perceived to be at odds with an existing social order”. “There are numerous contexts in which violent acts with such limited purposes would unhesitatingly be classed as terrorist”, Coady notes. This recent scholarly approach to the concept of terrorism, Coady argues in his synopsis below, is not only “marred by avoidance of a clear definition of what is meant by “a terrorist act” but the conclusions these esteemed scholars are arriving at are “likely to contribute to the misunderstanding of actual motivations behind the employment of the terrorist tactic by sub-state groups, deflect attention from the terrorism of states, and exaggerate the significance of the many occurrences of terrorist acts by non-state groups and the threat those groups pose”. Coady finds it sufficient to define terrorism as “a tactic of politically oriented violence that aims to kill or otherwise seriously harm innocent people or their significant property” without any further “ventures into the psycho-social effects such an alarming status might have or might be intended to have”.

To summarize all of the sharp insights the contributors to this Issue have injected into the current public policy discussion about how best to go about defeating ISIL and restoring the Middle East, although President Obama is right in thinking that ISIL is not an existential threat to the Unites States, Finlay, Steinhoff, Bazargan-Forward, and Draper, all somewhat agree that because of the U.S’s unique role in facilitating the emergence, and subsequent inhumanity perpetrated by ISIL, where the U.S is capable, and the victims of ISIL’s destructive ideology willing, the U.S should be open to an humanitarian intervention that will, at the very least, protect religious minorities from mass oppression and genocide, and ideally, provide care and shelter for the millions of refugees fleeing the terror of ISIL. Finally, all of this should be done without getting militarily involved in directly deposing President Bashar al-Assad.

Furthermore, while Obama’s foreign policy response to the provocations of ISIL and the shocking disregard of al-Assad has not been unproblematic, his plan to “downgrade and ultimately destroy ISIS” by assembling an international coalition force to assist vetted, religiously moderate, and patriotic forces with nutritional and operational resources, weapons, military training, as well as Intel and air support where tactically needed, has proved somewhat beneficial in helping the coalition-sponsored fighters liberate significant parts of Ramadi, Dabiq, and now perhaps Mosul, from the command of ISIL.

All those who minimally care about the well-being of those living under ISIL should arguably welcome these developments, if not for the military campaign’s modest affirmation of the diplomatic ideal of international cooperation in the pursuit of a globally beneficial goal, then at least for presenting those whose lives have been disrupted by overbearing extremism, with hope that one day the threat of ISIL on their lives will be fairly negligible. But this change also provides an occasion to reconsider the purpose of weapons research and terrorism in light of reports of weapons falling into the hands of illegal merchants, and ISIL’s likely return to terrorist attacks on foreign targets in response to its diminishing influence in the region.

These provisional scholarly remarks by a select few philosophers of war pleasantly complement journalist Graeme Wood’s equally valuable assessment of what urgently needs to be done to stop ISIS from committing further crimes against humanity. I will close this introduction by reproducing—with added editorial notes (in bold bracketed black)—the most relevant section of his widely discussed “What ISIS Really Wants” (The Atlantic, March 2015 Issue) for the overall coherence of this particular issue of The Critique’s series on modern warfare:

“Chastened by our earlier indifference, we are now meeting the Islamic State via Kurdish and Iraqi proxy on the battlefield, and with regular air assaults. Those strategies haven’t dislodged the Islamic State from any of its major territorial possessions, although they’ve kept it from directly assaulting Baghdad and Erbil and slaughtering Shia and Kurds there.

Some observers have called for escalation, including several predictable voices from the interventionist right (Max Boot, Frederick Kagan), who have urged the deployment of tens of thousands of American soldiers. These calls should not be dismissed too quickly: an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims’ front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls [We now have a better sense of the atrocities ISIL committed as soon as it got access through the front door: 400,000 Yazdis are alleged to have been abused].

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover [Hence the significance of its increasing territorial losses at the hands of rebels, especially Dabiq].

And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of isis, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job? [On this point, all of our contributors have also erred on the side of caution: an occupation will most likely end badly for everyone involved, especially innocent civilians].

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options [This is roughly the approach President Obama has adopted to limited success]. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

The humanitarian cost of the Islamic State’s existence is high. But its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest [On this score, Obama is in agreement with Wood that ISIL is not an “existential threat” to the United States]. Al-Qaeda’s core is rare among jihadist groups for its focus on the “far enemy” (the West); most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home. That’s especially true of the Islamic State, precisely because of its ideology. It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount. Baghdadi has said as much directly: in November he told his Saudi agents to “deal with the rafida [Shia] first … then al-Sulul [Sunni supporters of the Saudi monarchy] … before the crusaders and their bases.”

The foreign fighters (and their wives and children) have been traveling to the caliphate on one-way tickets: they want to live under true Sharia, and many want martyrdom. Doctrine, recall, requires believers to reside in the caliphate if it is at all possible for them to do so. One of the Islamic State’s less bloody videos shows a group of jihadists burning their French, British, and Australian passports. This would be an eccentric act for someone intending to return to blow himself up in line at the Louvre or to hold another chocolate shop hostage in Sydney.

A few “lone wolf” supporters of the Islamic State have attacked Western targets, and more attacks will come [Indeed they have, and will probably continue to do so, especially if ISIL keeps losing ground]. But most of the attackers have been frustrated amateurs, unable to immigrate to the caliphate because of confiscated passports or other problems. Even if the Islamic State cheers these attacks—and it does in its propaganda—it hasn’t yet planned and financed one [We now know of at least one well organized and financed attack on a Western target: The November 2015 Paris attacks].

Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.


Article #1: “Is ISIS Evil? Morality, Religion, and Self-Deception” by Todd Calder (Saint Mary’s University). 

ISIS and other terrorists groups have been described as evil. Should they be? Some philosophers and laypeople believe that ascriptions of evil are unhelpful and potentially dangerous, leading to the inhumane treatment of purported perpetrators. This article defends the concept of evil against those who would abandon it. Properly understood, the concept of evil is appropriately used to describe actions performed by ISIS and/or its members, but may also apply to actions performed by ISIS’s enemies.

Todd Calder is an Associate Professor in the Department of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. His primary research interests lie in ethical theory and social philosophy, with particular interests in the nature and moral significance of evil and shared and collective responsibility. He has written journal articles on these and related topics.

Article #2: “The Morality Of The War Against ISIS: Can Targeted Killing Be Justified?” by Christopher J. Finlay (University of Birmingham). 

The method of killing targeted individuals, characteristically by means of drone strike, has been used against ISIS by both the USA and the UK. Moral and legal arguments in support of the method often liken it to individual acts of self- and other-defence against imminent attackers. But if it is used against individuals who are not presently engaged in a terrorist attack, on the basis that they are members of a terrorist organization, then the targeted killing has to be seen as an individually offensive measure rather than a purely defensive one. As such, it ought to be evaluated as a form of warfare. Where targeted killings are used in this way, justification depends on whether the states engaged in it can claim to be engaged in a justified defensive war. For such a war to be justified, I argue, not only must the just war criteria of just cause, proportionality, and so on, be satisfied but the threat against which it is waged must be a collectively organized one on a scale that requires a collectively coordinated defensive response.

Dr Christopher Finlay is Reader in Political Theory at the University of Birmingham where he teaches in the Department of Political Science and International Studies. Currently, he works chiefly on the theme of violence in political thought, ethics, and international political theory. His most recent book is Terrorism and the Right to Resist: a Theory of Just Revolutionary War (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Article #3: “Should We Bomb ISIS? The Trolley Problem & The Technocratic Delusions Of The West” by Uwe Steinhoff (University of Hong Kong).

In modern wars innocent people are killed even by the supposedly justified side. This would speak against humanitarian interventions. Yet killing some to save many can sometimes be justified under appeal to a so-called necessity or lesser evil justification. It is important to understand how exactly these justifications work and to identify appropriate domestic analogies in order to avoid misapplying the justification in the case of war. I argue that a correct application of the lesser evil or necessity justification cannot justify the bombing of ISIS by Western forces given the realities on the ground. Defense of the Yazidi territory, however, is a special case given ISIS’ genocidal intentions towards this group.

Uwe Steinhoff is Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of On the Ethics of War and Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2007), The Philosophy of Jürgen Habermas (Oxford University Press, 2009) and On the Ethics of Torture (State University of New York Press, 2013), and editor of Do All Persons Have Equal Moral Worth? (Oxford University Press, 2014). He is currently writing a book trilogy on just war theory and the ethics of violence.

Article #4: “What To Do About ISIS: A Moral Perspective” by Saba Bazargan-Forward (University of California, San Diego). 

The United States unwittingly and unintentionally laid the foundations for the so-called ‘Islamic State in Syria’ (ISIS). It did so by invading Iraq in 2003, thereby destabilizing the region, and by implementing post-Invasion policies that enabled ISIS to flourish. These two explanations of the birth and rise of ISIS together provide reasons for thinking that the United States bears substantial moral responsibility for the destruction that ISIS has wrought. This morally informs how the United States should subsequently deal with ISIS: the United States has created a monster and it is now morally required to prevent that monster from doing more harm. One way to do so is to devote the resources necessary to achieving a military victory over ISIS. But I argue that attempting to achieve such a victory will likely make things even worse for the civilians in the region. Instead, the reparative duties the United States bears manifests in a different way: because the United States bears a measure of blame for the birth and rise of ISIS, the United States is morally required to devote the resources necessary to care for the millions of refugees fleeing ISIS.

Saba Bazargan-Forward is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He works primarily in normative ethics, with a focus on the morality of defensive violence, the morality of war, and complicity. He also works on a variety of other issues in normative ethics, including: the moral analysis of coercion, the bases of compensatory liability, and the morality of mediating agency. He was awarded the Philosopher’s Annual Top Ten Papers of 2014 for his article ‘Moral Coercion’. He is currently authoring a book on complicity and the morality of war, and is co-editing the forthcoming Oxford University Press volume ‘The Ethics of War: Essays’.

Article #5: “Ethics, ISIS & Assad: The Proper Use Of American Military Force In Iraq and Syria” by Kai Draper (University of Delaware).

ISIS and the Assad regime both pose unjust threats of great harm. But is war a reasonable response to such threats? Working within an ethical framework that takes individual rights seriously, I argue that if a large percentage of those living under ISIS rule would reasonably prefer a liberation effort on their behalf, then a strong case can be made for the use of American military force to deprive ISIS of territory in Iraq and Syria. However, I also question the notion that the US military’s mission in Syria should be widened to include deposing Assad. Like many others, I doubt that a new regime in Syria would be better than the current one. I identify four under-appreciated reasons why the United States should not use military force to depose Assad.

Kai Draper is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Delaware. He writes on the significance of death, the ethics of self-defense and war, and the nature of evidence. His book, War and Individual Rights (Oxford University Press, 2015), was published in October 2015.

Article #6: “ISIS & The Case Against Weapons Research: Weapons Designed In One Context Find Use In An Altogether Different One” by John Forge (Sydney University). 

ISIS military successes would not have been possible without (modern) weapons, something which is true of any war or conflict. It follows that wars and conflicts would not be possible without weapons, and this observation suggests a range of questions about those who supply, manufacture and design weapons. This article focusses on weapons research, the activity that seeks to design weapons, and its relation to the weapons that ISIS has at its command. It is clear that those who designed the weapons in question did not intend that ISIS should have them: indeed, some were designed more than sixty years ago. This raises further questions about the nature of weapons research, and an argument to the effect that this activity is (always) immoral is sketched.

John Forge, having retired, is now an honorary associate of the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science at Sydney University. His recent work has to do with science and responsibility and with the morality of weapons research: The Responsible Scientist (Pittsburgh 2008) covered the first topic and Designed to Kill: The Case Against Weapons Research (Springer, 2012) the second. A new edition of the former is planned. Forge has a website,, where some papers and a free ebook on weapons research, and an intermittent blog, are available.

Article #7: “Does Terrorism Have “A Distinctive Moral Significance”? Why A Recent Philosophical Trend Is Dangerously Mistaken” by C.A.J. Coady (Centre For Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics). 

The terrorist activities in the early 21st century of groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda, have created widespread dismay and apprehension in Western societies especially when these activities are directed at their homelands. In this context, there has developed a trend in recent philosophical discussions of terrorism to search for what is morally distinctive and significant about terrorism. This article considers two recent contributions to this search by prominent political philosophers, Samuel Scheffler and Jeremy Waldron. Both approaches in different ways try to delineate a standard drastic socio-political outcome intended by terrorists and claim that the distinctive moral significance of terrorist acts resides in that. This article argues that both contributions are marred by avoidance of a clear definition of what is meant by “a terrorist act”, and by several confusions in argument. In addition, their conclusions are likely to contribute to the misunderstanding of actual motivations behind the employment of the terrorist tactic by sub-state groups, deflect attention from the terrorism of states, and exaggerate the significance of the many occurrences of terrorist acts by non-state groups and the threat those groups pose.

J. (Tony) Coady is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He has been a prominent figure in fostering applied philosophy in Australia and has been a regular contributor to public debate on ethical and philosophical dimensions of current affairs. His book Testimony: A Philosophical Studyhas been influential in promoting a new field of epistemology, and he has published extensively on issues concerning war and terrorism, including his book Morality and Political Violence (Oxford University Press, 2008). In 2005, he gave the Uehiro Lectures on Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, and in 2012 he was Leverhulme Visiting Professor at that university.


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