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Be wary of politicians who speak about moral obligation


One would think after the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Libya that Australians would have learned to be just a little bit suspicious when the US Government suggests another Middle East war, or when a politician urges – as Bob Carr and Tony Blair have – that we have a 'moral obligation' to join in.

Traditional just war theory says that there are a number of ethical questions raised in going to war. Is it for a just cause? Is war a last resort? Is it declared by proper authority? Is the war proportional to the end and does it have a reasonable chance of success? All of these have some echo in international law and all are decidedly murky here.

We are not clear on the cause. The war in Iraq in which Australia is currently engaged is reasonably clear-cut. Troops are there at the Iraqi Government’s invitation to fight ISIS – a war of self-defence. Australia has, however, ceased to recognise the Syrian Government.

The US supports some of the rebel groups in Syria (some of whom are fighting each other, ISIS and/or the Syrian Government at the same time). Another US ally – Turkey – is bombing both ISIS and the Kurds (who are successfully fighting ISIS). Australia is opposed to ISIS, but so are the Syrian Government and Al Nusra (the local Al Qaeda branch). Australia is opposed to the Syrian Government, but so are ISIS and Al Nusra. Which, if any of these, will Australia be supporting and why?

Certainly, for all the rhetoric, there is to date no evidence that any of these factions are massing troops to invade Australia (or even the US). Given that we cannot even say for certain who the enemy is or why we will fight, the question of whether any war is truly a matter of last resort must be equally open.

The position is complicated further by the fact that the chaos in Iraq which bred ISIS – usually thought of as our main potential target – was undoubtedly caused by the defeat of Saddam Hussain. In addition, a recently declassified 2012 memorandum from the US Defence Intelligence Agency, declares that 'there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria…and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the [Syrian] opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime…' This proved amazingly prescient in predicting both the place and the nature of ISIS, a self-declared Sunni caliphate claiming to base itself on the teaching of Muhammad and his companions ('the forefathers' – al salaf).

This report also suggests that the rise of the 'Salafist principality' was not exactly opposed by the US but seen as useful in counteracting the Shi’a powers of Iran, Iraq and Syria. It is therefore not beyond the realms of possibility that ISIS itself (now much vilified in the Western press and surely a major candidate for US bombing) is itself the result of a US experiment gone bad. What more havoc could an unfocused and badly thought-through intervention cause?

Then there is the question of proper authority. Australia and the US are certainly able to take military action in self-defence. This, however, does not seem to be the case here (for reasons already discussed). Failing that, 'lawful authority' is generally seen (at least in international law) to rest with the United Nations Security Council which, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, can mandate the use of force in preserving international order. Aside from the difficulty in taking action in a foreign country which is opposed by the government of that country, there is the complication that the Syrian government is supported by a number of countries – most notably Russia, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council.

Russian fears might be allayed by some guarantee by America that the campaign was not aimed at the Syrian Government. Given, however, that the US did try to start a bombing campaign against the Syrian Government two years ago and given also that the UN resolution allowing a no-fly zone in Libya was used as cover for a full-scale invasion of Libya (which has not turned out well), one could understand why the Russians might not be entirely convinced. This is especially true given the fact that the United States and Australia are locked in a confrontation with Russia over the deteriorating situation in the Ukraine.

For all the above reasons, one must also be equally agnostic about the proportionality of war to the ends (which themselves are unknown). The same is true of the question of the chance of success. After all, if we do not know who we are fighting, why and what we hope to get out of it, success is remarkably difficult to define. For this, if for no other reason, the US and its allies should think carefully before committing themselves to another illegal military adventure in the Middle East.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.


Topic tags: Justin Glyn, just war, Syria, middle east, Bob Carr, Tony Blair, ISIS, warfare



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Existing comments

Considering we keep trying to send Iraqi and Syrian refugees home and have been jailing and torturing them since we started the war we have no right to use the word ''moral'' when it comes to blowing people to bits.

Marilyn | 27 August 2015  

Perhaps Bob Carr and Tony Abbott should ask themselves whether they each have a 'moral' responsibility to put their money where there mouths are - to actually go and join the fight - not to send some other poor bastard. But wait, then they would be doing something illegal and subject to prosecution!

Ginger Meggs | 27 August 2015  

Thanks Justin, well said. Bob Carr is joining other recently retired luminaries Rudd and Latham to make up the Three Stooges of the ALP. Before you were born, Justin, this all happened in Vietnam. We never learn - we are again asked to send young Australian men and women to fight an unwinnable war as we did almost 50 years ago.

Frank | 28 August 2015  

Good thought provoking article at the loose use of the words moral obligations. Similar to' trust me'.

marlene | 28 August 2015  

In the last 60 years, has the US ever successfully run an intervention of any sort, political, military or otherwise? How much better would the world be if the US kept its nose out of other people's business? Even the TPP, which is allegedly a commercial pact, will be a disaster for everyone except the US. It's pretty evident that despite calling itself the world's policeman, the US is interested only in advantaging itself at the cost of others.

ErikH | 28 August 2015  

100% spot on!

Peter c Martin | 28 August 2015  

In view of Australia's history over the last 60 or so years, of following our friends into wars which are really not our business, and thinking of a plebiscite being mooted to decide one or two other questions, I believe we should be pressuring the political parties to agree that we would not commit troops or military equipment to any conflict without the express agreement of the Australian people, e.g by way of a plebiscite. Direct defence of Australia would of course be the exception.

Vin Victory | 28 August 2015  

.."...a politician urges – as Bob Carr and Tony Blair have – that we have a 'moral obligation' to join in." We have a moral obligation to do what we reasonably can to bring peace, justice and stability to people who are afflicted by war, persecution and deprivation. But the seductive appeal to the use of violence as a first resort can distract us from acknowledging and addressing the causes of the conflict. While reason and diplomacy will not appeal to the 'hot-heads', if we accept and admit our past failures(exploitations, propping up of puppets, belittling of other ways of life) we can engage with moderate leaders to help move towards mutually acceptable outcomes.

Robert Liddy | 28 August 2015  

I believe if Archbishop Mannix were alive today he might be tempted to repeat what he said about World War 1. 'I say deliberately that in spite of all the things we say about the war, it is an ordinary trade war.' Today we live in a globalised economy. The major powers spend billions to protect their economic interests. Their intelligence agencies spend as much time gathering economic intelligence about their competitors as they do regarding their military capacity and intentions. Talk of moral obligation is all very goodl but I'd rather hear politicians, both present and past, answer the ancient question "Cui bono?'. For whose or what benefit is this war being waged?

Uncle Pat | 28 August 2015  

EricH's comment prompts a thought: if the U.S. is the world's policeman, it seems to be a crooked cop.

Brian Davies | 28 August 2015  

I wrote in much the same terms on this on my blog under the title Bombing Syria - beware bloodthirsty imperialists and their moral duties. I finish off with this: . 'The last big demonstrations in Australia were against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the lies of our leaders. Maybe it is time to organise protests against the next instalment of that madness, bombing Syria.' http://enpassant.com.au/2015/08/26/bombing-syria-beware-bloodthirsty-imperialists-and-their-moral-duties/

John Passant | 28 August 2015  

I liked your post EricH and I really liked the article Justin. America never seems to understand other nations. And the complexity you outline in the article is hard for many people to comprehend. Granted the history in the Middle East one outcome of going for ISIS might be the development of another group like ISIS, or the Taliban arising from outrage at another botched intrusion into a non enemy country. Australia does not need any moral justification; just some lies like WMD and a servile dependency on the United States. If we learn anything from history about war what stands out as the take home message is the unprincipled leaders boost their popularity when they attack someone else. Vide, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan or further back Henry V going into France. To say nothing of Thatcher going to the Falklands and the British scuttling a fleeing Argentinian ship and losing the log of the boat which committed the atrocity. And Abbott has a byelection to win. No if the Americans need an enemy to fight their most morally justifiable target is their own gun lobby.

Michael D. Breen | 28 August 2015  

The justification for intervention would be our common humanity. Has Bosnia been forgotten? I recall UN paralysis leaving the US to take the (illegal?) initiative in response to excruciating images of columns of fleeing refugees. I would guess that the toll in this case is considerably more horrific re human life, refugees, and our ancient cultural heritage (Nimrud, Palmyra etc). And substantially inflicted in this case by inconceivably ruthless (‘much vilified’!) and thriving forces which encourage the same ideology worldwide. Yet the West is largely indifferent to this international disaster – is it because Christians are one of the major targets under threat? If it’s argued that military intervention might be ineffective or strategically fraught (although Muslims are apparently the major victims of ISIS), why is there no suggestion – exhortation – demand – for some effective alternative measure? As diplomatic or other intervention is demonstrably failing, then some judicious military response is in fact a 'last resort', for what is clearly a 'just cause'. Granted, assessment of likely effectiveness in this complicated scenario is also critical. But domestically at least, limited bombing might be an acceptable (unlikelihood of Australian casualties) contribution to a package of strategies (including acceptance of affected refugees). Or should we just leave innocents to their fate?

David Moloney | 29 August 2015  

I am from the USA and happened across you site. I agree with what Justin Glyn writes about the USA's ham-fisted attempts to intervene in the affairs of other nations. My beef with the article is that he limits the caveat given in the headline to the USA's and Australia's international affairs. A further beef with the headline is that it is restricted to politicians. I would be wary of more than just politicians who speak about our moral obligations in international affairs. All good citizens should be wary of politicians, priests, media, academics, public intellectuals, celebrities (of all types) who, with their condescending attitude, presume to know better than the rest of the public what we should or should not do. This is particularly so in their many crusades to rid the world of its perceived inequalities and injustices. Why do we trust that these savants are any wiser or better qualified to clean up domestic matters than the USA has been in cleaning up its various messes?

Buster Henry | 30 August 2015  

Thanks for this article Justin, and your contribution to the discussion about how to tackle ISIS. It certainly reads as an apologetic proposition for doing nothing - the risk being too great; the goal being too uncertain. I was left wondering what would you make of the statement: "Evil prospers when good men (people) do nothing". If being motivated by 'moral obligation' is not a good enough motivation, then what is? I, like many, am broken-hearted when I read of the abuse being suffered by the Yazidi women - that group alone makes me willing to back a military intervention in that region. I used to wonder, when I studied the history of the World Wars, how it was that noone intervened with regards to the Jewish holocaust - now, watching events unfold in the Middle East, I understand how easy 'inaction' is. "Moral obligation" is at the heart of good men and women. It makes us act, even when it would be easier not to.

CMBR | 30 August 2015  

Dear Buster, CMBR and David You make good points. Firstly, though, I thought I should just clarify that my article was restricted to the Syrian issue (rather than a commentary on politicians in general), but I would agree with Buster's broader question about questioning information from people who try to patronise you. Secondly, I too worry about the consequences of doing nothing. I work with refugees and I fear for those affected by the war. I am, however, less than convinced that bombing more civilians out of their houses will help. I am also very worried about how we got to this point and worried that any "assistance" we try to render (especially when it does not have the force of law behind it) will be just another selfish and short-sighted intervention. (Will we fight ISIS on Al-Qaida's side?) As I mentioned, there is evidence that ISIS itself emerged this way and anyone with long enough memories will remember how the West armed Saddam and the Taliban before finally turning on them. I am, however, all for providing humanitarian help to Syria. At the moment, however, Australia detains Syrian refugees offshore and has tried to send them home (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/15/appalling-offer-syrian-asylum-seekers-offered-repatriation-manus-island).

Justin Glyn SJ | 31 August 2015  

I had the opportunity to work for one of the most influential families in America when Desert Storm erupted. I remember a family member candidly explaining his and the nation's perspective. I learnt back then: "The US is interested only in advantaging itself at the cost of others".

AO | 31 August 2015  

'I am, however, less than convinced that bombing more civilians out of their houses will help.' I missed that news in relation to the recent campaign of anti-ISIS air strikes. But has anyone estimated the number of lives lost in the largely undefended ISIS rampage, and numbers of refugees (including those who continue to die on the Mediterranean, or in trucks in Austria)? Or estimated how many more will suffer similarly if no action is taken? There is no suggestion I think of bombing Al Nusra, or Assad, but doesn't the ISIS campaign have a discrete front? Or better, is there prospect of UN intervention, including ground troops (perhaps led by Kurds, and comprising large contingents of Arabs), to address just the ISIS campaign of conquest, or at least, parts of it? It would no doubt raise objections, but Syria is in a state of civil war, which (together with its many alleged atrocities) must undermine the authority of its government. And Russia is not a friend of fundamentalist Islam. Iraq might also be interested. It would be a purely humanitarian campaign, limited, and not comparable with past interventions that were designed to advantage distant nations but which instead fostered extremism. It might also be a powerful statement by moderate Islam.

David Moloney | 01 September 2015  

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