For the agents or military of one nation to cross another sovereign nation’s borders and do damage to people or property is war. It is not an intervention, it is not a police action, it is not a pre-retaliatory counter-attack. It is war. That said, war is not always wrong. It can be justified, or even necessary. But if it is not justified, it must be condemned. Those are the lessons of history.
A U.S. attack in Syria was guaranteed if Hilary Clinton had become president, and now it seems inevitable that Donald Trump will do the same. While Hilary Clinton would have been a nightmare scenario for traditional Catholic principles, on the issue of war it doesn’t seem to matter which party is in control, or what they say prior to the election, war always wins.
What then would make a justifiable war? Merely consult Catholic tradition itself, because the Just War Doctrine is no further than your Catechism, and it requires that:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).
See s. 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
So, first of all, the doctrine presupposes that the nation to be justly attacked has done some harm to a neighbor to justify the attack. Syria is almost in a state of civil war and it is not clear at all which party has taken what action. Both sides–the Syrian leadership, and the people battling them, basically ISIS–have blood on their hands and are undesirable to lead the nation. Indeed, there is a better case for just war against ISIS than Syria, even though it is not a country, because if the U.S. acts as the Trump administration seems to want to, ISIS might well get control.
So in Syria, as was the case in Iraq, and in Libya, and Afghanistan, success is inevitably going to be denied because the new government will be arguably even worse than the one it replaces, or too weak to stand for more than a few days after the international players leave.
So the first test for a just war fails, because there is no damage to another country. The second test could be argued both ways. The third, that there be a chance of success, is a miserable failure given all of recent history. The fourth is hard to say, but given the likeliness of bombing innocents, and the fact that arms that have rushed into the Middle East to fight other wars and ended up in enemy hands it is hard to argue with the likelihood that this factor will fail as well.
There are a million reasons to be against war and very few to be for it. Those who have been in war describe it as an unholy hell where truth is the first casualty. These criteria of the Just War Doctrine developed for a reason and they contain in them the wisdom of the ages.
Instead, modern political leaders are influenced by the same strategists who have called for wars in the recent past that cost the U.S. unimaginable blood and treasure, far more than these “experts” predicted, but they are back, predicting again, strategizing again. Indeed, warmonger seems to be the only profession where incompetence guarantees your prosperity and success.
Instead of calling in the same old experts for advice, political leaders everywhere would be far better advised to turn to the Just War doctrine to test the scenario, for if they did there would be far less war. And the next one would not happen at all.