War as punishment: President Obama’s Syrian solution

The most recent comments by United States President Barack Obama regarding a possible military intervention in Syria indicate views at odds with just war theory – the doctrine emerging from moral philosophy surrounding the just use of military force.

On Saturday, President Obama expressed his desire to “hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons.” “Holding accountable,” as so many journalists have rightly identified, is loosely-veiled language that disguises the purpose of an American-led military intervention: punishment.

The use of military force as punishment – in this case, for the alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebel forces – was understood as a just use of force by one of the founding figures of western just war theory, St. Augustine of Hippo. Writing in the early-fifth century, Augustine believed that “just wars as defined as those which avenge injuries.” Indeed, the view of punishment as a justification for war continued to be given salience in the Catholic moral theology, from which modern just war theories emerged, up until the seventeenth century, where it features in the writings of Hugo Grotius. The justification of these moral theologians’ insistence on punishment as a legitimate use of force emerged from:

  • the lack of a sovereign authority to pronounce on disputes between states and the need for states to defend themselves; and
  • the divine authority of a sovereign to serve as, in the words of thirteenth-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, “God’s minister” in punishing sin.

The first claim explains why states can use force while private citizens cannot. When an individual is wronged by another, “he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior,” as Aquinas put it. However, prior to the emergence of international law, if a state sought redress for alleged wrongdoings by another state, it had no authority to turn to for justice. Thus, it had license to pursue its claim directly, exercising its own force in an effort to, in a sense, install itself as a sovereign who could pass (just) judgement over its enemy’s wrongdoing. The second claim involves not only the existence of a deity, but a deity who might sanction or even directly command wars in some situations. Augustine held the wars of Moses against the Egyptians as an archetypal just war, for in obeying God’s command Moses “showed not ferocity but obedience.” Continue reading


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