The Syrian Airstrike and Sovereign Responsibility

By Monday, April 17, 2017

This article originally appeared at ProvidenceMag.com. Used with permission.

The United States’ recent airstrike against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s military assets last week – in response to the regime’s chemical weapons attack against a rebel-controlled village – have rightly garnered much attention in the press. Just prior to the airstrike, I also had wondered aloud whether President Donald Trump’s warning that the Assad regime’s gas attack had “crossed a lot of lines” would mean anything more than his predecessor’s warning about lines – his were red.

And then came the news that 59 Tomahawk land attack missiles fired from a pair of U.S. Navy destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean had hit “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars” at the Shayrat airbase, near Homs, Syria. Against Russian and Syrian claims to the contrary, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis asserted that the airstrike, while always limited in scope, carried out its operational purpose ably, rendering a large percentage of the Syrian air force destroyed or inoperative and significantly reducing the utility of the Shayrat airbase.

Naturally, not everyone – including many Christians ­– was pleased. I want to briefly reflect on the complaint that the strike was unlawful. While I am responding to specifically Christian arguments made against the strike, my comments have wider application.

On the question of the strike’s legality, I admit to an initial, immediate and rather spontaneous response – a bit like a gag reflex – at Christian carping regarding whether punishing someone for gassing children is on the legal up-and-up. My native, knee-jerk response is, frankly, I don’t care. This is an admittedly insufficient. Laws ought to be followed. But, of course, this begs the question. History is full of examples when what is lawful ought not, in fact, to be followed – the racial laws of Nazis Germany and apartheid South Africa spring to mind. This is to stress that when the moral and the legal conflict, one sticks with the moral. More on this in a moment.

America is neither Nazis Germany nor is it apartheid South Africa. I agree that the preferred route prior to military action is for the president to seek congressional approval. But there is a long precedence of not doing so: Ronald Reagan in Grenada, the elder Bush in Panama, Bill Clinton in Kosovo, and Barack Obama in both Libya and Iraq. Moreover, contrary to the passion on both sides, there is no firm consensus as to whether a limited military action such as the strike requires congressional approval under the U.S. Constitution’s War Powers clause of Article 1. The situation with Syria is further complicated by the fact that American military activity in Syria – ranging from airstrikes against ISIS to boots on the ground in support of rebel groups fighting the terrorist organization – started long before Trump took office. What makes this strike arguably different is, of course, that it is the first direct attack against the government of Assad. It seems to me that while the case for strict legality is unsettled, precedence is on the side of the president.

In any case, there is, and I say this cautiously, something to be said for post-facto judgments. On matters with no clear legal consensus but with a limited time frame, it is appropriate for the president – especially one with the unanimous approval of his key advisors – to act first and afterward put the matter up for scrutiny. Congress maintains, even now, the freedom to censure the president or to laud him. The wide, bipartisan, congressional support the president has received would seem to settle the matter.

But on the point of this being the first attack against al-Assad, we need to linger. There are those who focus their ire on the bare fact of U.S. government intervention into the affairs of another sovereign state. This objection emerges from a very particular, and to the Christian mind, inadequate, view of sovereignty. As James Turner Johnson noted in his Sovereignty: Moral and Historical Perspectives, following the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 – that set of international agreements that brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end and upon which is built the notion of the modern state – the idea of sovereignty has been firmly linked to the state and the international system based on states. While an oversimplification, two essential characteristics of such an understanding of sovereignty include, first, the possession of an independent territory over which one rules, and for which, second, the ruler therefore enjoys the right of defense. Territorial integrity, then, is the primary concern. For the Christian, this won’t do – nor, really, has it ever done.

Sovereignty involves something more than simply running a country – and regardless of whether the ruler is running it well or into the ground. What’s missing is the classic just war tradition’s emphasis on sovereignty as responsibility for the common good – for the care of the political community over which there is no one greater charged with the cultivation and defense of basic civic peace characterized by justice and order. Sovereignty is not a cover under which individuals or regimes can brutalize their own people with impunity. The Christian tradition provides the means by which we can judge good government from bad and to encourage the former and critique – and resist – the latter. judge It is a perverse view of sovereignty that grants legitimacy to one such as al-Assad.

This isn’t to say that against al-Assad anything goes. But nothing about the airstrike suggests this. It was extremely measured in scope – arguably of far greater symbolic importance than military. War is ugly by nature. Nevertheless, certain acts render it uglier still. The century-old international norm against the use of chemical weapons has just been reinforced. This does not render war now beautiful – but it’s not nothing that the possibility of unnecessary horror has been curtailed.

Nor is it nothing that our adversaries have been put on notice and our friends reassured: When the responsibilities of sovereignty are held in contempt, the contemptuous will be held responsible.

Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is the Scholar on Christian Ethics, War, & Peace at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, D.C. and Managing Editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, co-published by IRD and The Philos Project. Providence appears quarterly in print and daily at providencemag.com.