Syria and the Moral Follies of Humanitarian Warfare


Syria and the Moral Follies of Humanitarian Warfare

Sep 6th, 2013 7 min read
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.

Distinguished Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center

Kim R. Holmes, a distinguished fellow, oversaw the Foundation's think tank’s defense and foreign policy team for more than two decades.
President Obama has made many arguments for his intervention in Syria. It’s necessary to enforce “international norms.” It will send Syrian President Assad a “message.” It would “degrade” Syria’s military capabilities and “deter” Assad from launching another chemical attack.

But in Stockholm the President raised the stakes. Responding to a question about how he could reconcile his call for military action with the peace message of that prize, the President said this: “. . . I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas . . . and we have the opportunity to take some action that is meaningful, even if it doesn’t solve the entire problem may at least mitigate [it], then the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.”

Thus now the moral argument has been joined. Presidents know that Americans want to believe that their military actions are “right”—morally justified, if you will. So Obama knows he’s tapping into something powerful. However, there is a lot of loose talk about what it means to use military force in a “moral” way. Indeed much of what is passed off as moral justifications for using military force for humanitarian purposes is intellectually shallow and deeply contradictory—as if there mere mention of “acting” or “doing something” settles the matter.

So what of the moral argument for action against Syria? Is it convincing? Or mere folly?


Moral argument obviously has a superficial appeal. What could be nobler than promising to sacrifice oneself for the sake of protecting innocents from slaughter? Never mind that, in this case, it would be someone else—namely, U.S. military personnel—who would do the job (and take the risk) for you. It still feels good to be doing the “right” thing. And never mind that innocent civilians, as a result of “collateral damage,” may be unintentionally killed in the name of saving them. It’s the intention that counts. Right?

Actually, no it’s not. It is not the intention that counts but what happens when one attempts to act on that intention. Aristotle says that we must measure the moral value of an act not by its intention, but by its consequences. We may very well intend to stop another use of chemical weapons by Assad, but sadly that is not even the purpose of the military mission as outlined by the administration. Instead it is to “take action … even if it doesn’t solve the entire problem,” as President Obama said. In the Oval Office, it’s the “action,” not the consequences, that counts.

But what if the action doesn’t even intend to “solve the problem?” It’s one thing to fail for trying, but what if not succeeding is not even the objective? What can be the moral purpose of that?

There really isn’t one. If you add on top of that the absurdity of killing “innocent civilians” as collateral damage, then you truly have a questionable moral action.


Philosophers for centuries have thought about the moral implications of war. The most prominent theory is the “just war” doctrine that establishes the right standards for conducting warfare. These are well known. The cause must be “just;” likewise the “authority” overseeing the action must be “just” as well; force should a measure of last resort. There must be a probability of success, plus an appreciation of the proportionality of cost.

Military action against Syria meets some of these criteria. I suppose you could say the cause is “just,” even if it is inappropriate strategically. As for “just” authority, that would normally require authorization by either the United Nations Security Council or the U.S. Congress. The first is not going to happen, and we’ll see about the latter. Proportionality is likely to be within an acceptable range. Obama promises a very limited use of force, even though it actually may be too little too late.

It’s the probability of success where military action gets into moral trouble with the just war theory. It’s clear the President is more interested in limiting the action than achieving success. Indeed it’s unclear exactly what the measure of success would be. “Degrading” a few military targets is not likely to deny Assad his chemical-warfare capability. In fact, the administration has made clear that attacking chemical sites has been taken off the table because of fear of contamination.

Why does this matter? Because even a small military strike will kill people. We had better have a very sound reason—which includes a clear definition of success—before we use that force. Indeed, the high risk and cost of human life requires serious thinking about the consequences as a matter of moral conscience.

There’s another consideration. The highest purpose of American power is first and foremost to protect the security and freedoms of Americans. We should not go about abusing the freedom and security of other nations in the process, but protecting our freedoms is why we put the federal government together in the first place. It’s also why we spend billions of dollars to build a military force.

There is a huge difference between the moral responsibilities of an individual and those of a nation state such as the United States. Friedrich Hayek once wrote: "Justice, like liberty and coercion, is a concept which, for the sake of clarity, ought to be confined to the deliberate treatment of men by other men." In other words, strictly speaking, the key moral question is raised by what Assad is doing to his own people, not by what I or my country is or is not doing to stop him. The responsibilities of a democratic or republican government are different from those that govern our private lives. The state's responsibility is to secure liberty so that I, as an individual, have the freedom to act in a virtuous manner.

It would be another matter entirely if Assad’s chemical weapons were threatening America’s security interests. Then the social compact of security with the federal government kicks in, and it is obligated to not only protect us but to enlist our help in doing so. But that is not what the moral argument for Syrian intervention claims. It says that the mere horrific nature of the act suffices to justify the use of force. Perhaps the Founders should have put that particular proviso in the Constitution; or perhaps Congress should have passed a law to that effect. That they didn’t do so is proof that the doctrine of humanitarian warfare is far beyond what Americans have signed up for.


Humanitarian warfare advocates sometime argue that not stopping an atrocity overseas is as morally repugnant as an individual walking away from a beating on a city street. We had a chance to “do something” and we didn’t.

But does this comparison work?

If I see a man pounding someone in the street, I can either call the police or enter the fight myself. If the man gets away, the police will try to find him to bring him to a court for justice. The context is civil law, not international relations or even international law. The police action is taken to enforce civil law that exists inside a sovereign nation and which is bound by all sorts of rules and regulations that not only limit what the police can do, but govern strictly who is responsible for doing what to whom. I’m actually discouraged from breaking up the fight because that’s the police’s job. My moral obligation is to report a crime and cooperate with the police.

War is totally different. Not only are innocent civilians killed. The purpose is not law enforcement but the achievement of political ends—to bring down a regime or to protect one’s nation. Confusion exists because the assumptions behind domestic law are often mistakenly applied to international law. International law manages relations between states, not individuals. International humanitarian law has tried to blur the distinction, but nations still are ultimately responsible for protecting the rights outlined by humanitarian law.

For the bystander analogy to work, there would have to be an independent, sovereign and accountable international police force (not to mention a set of international laws governing all aspects of human civil behavior). That there is not is revealing. It shows that nation states are still in charge of the international order. It also shows that international law cannot be enforced unless the nations, acting through the UN Security Council, decide to act in concert. The fact that the UNSC will not do so should put a lie to the claim that the United States, acting on behalf of the supposed “international community,” is merely enforcing international norms.

It is not. It is President Obama pretending to be the world’s policeman, when in fact he’s not even being asked to do so.

It is true that the United States recognizes the international prohibition against war crimes. Indeed we acted upon that conviction as a victor in World War II. But we did not go to war to punish war crimes. We went to war to protect the United States from potential tyranny. We may indeed demand that countries be punished for war crimes—as hopefully someday Assad will be—but that is not an excuse to go to war in the first place.


War is not the appropriate moral means to express compassion. It can be just. It can even be glorious. But it is never humane. We may justify doing all kinds of horrible things for self-defense or to liberate a friend from tyranny. But we cannot and should not pretend that war is a means to achieve humanitarian ends. Indeed war and humanitarianism is an oxymoron. More than that, they are exact opposites in the field of human endeavors.

Nations should be bound by moral standards when conducting war. But for centuries this has been mainly about limiting the circumstances under which war should be made. Now with the doctrine of humanitarian warfare, those circumstances are being expanded. If Assad’s use of chemical weapons in no way threatens U.S. security or interests, then we have no business using force against Assad. Doing so in the name of morality is not humane. It is morally incoherent. What is worse, it is foolish.

- Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in The National Interest.