Legitimate authority is closely connected to a second concern: finding morally appropriate and effective means. As Pope Francis clarified when he said there is just cause to stop ISIS: “I’m not saying bomb or make war, just stop.” Since the end of the Cold War, the Vatican has repeatedly called on the international community to intervene when whole populations are at risk. By intervention, it means a wide range of actions, only some of which involve military force. Efforts to cut off ISIS’ access to weapons, financing, oil markets, and new recruits are just one example of what needs to be done.
While limited military intervention also seems necessary, we must be brutally realistic about what that might achieve. For most of the past 12 years, the United States has bombed, fought, trained and armed the Iraqi government. Yet Iraq is as violent and unstable as ever. Is it reasonable to expect military intervention to produce significantly different results today than it has over the past decade? Without a serious and sustained political strategy to build a more democratic, human-rights respecting, and effective government in Iraq, military force will be of only limited effectiveness against ISIS, whose strength is, in part, a function of the Iraqi government’s political weakness.
And Iraq is relatively easy compared to Syria. What would be the objectives of military action? To defend civilians against ISIS? Against the Syrian government, too? Against all armed groups that threaten civilians? To rebuild a nation? If the latter, who would undertake the Iraq-style occupation and nation building that would be necessary, and what grounds do we have for thinking that would succeed any better than it did in Iraq?
There are no morally clear or clean answers to the moral conundrums the international community faces in Iraq and Syria.
The United States, in particular, faces a serious moral conundrum. U.S. policy has suffered a double moral failure: it was immoral to intervene in Iraq in 2003, and in the years since, its self-serving, misguided, incompetent and sometimes grossly negligent policies have failed the Iraqi people. The first moral failure made the second more likely. These many years, many deaths, many billions of dollars, and many missteps later, we are tempted to say that we have done all we can do and wash our hands of the problem, letting Iraq and Syria be torn apart by their “ancient hatreds.” But that would be shirking our moral obligations, for the United States has become –voluntarily! – very much a part of those hatreds.
The more serious temptation at this moment of crisis is to do what we did in 2003: pursue a quick-fix military solution justified by best-case scenarios about the good that would be achieved – peace, freedom, and democracy for Iraq and the region. But that approach lacks the realism essential to any ethic of military intervention. Because past U.S. interventions helped create the current crisis, we have a moral obligation to act. Limited military intervention might be necessary. But without a serious effort to address the larger political, economic, and cultural dynamics – to engage in nation building in two countries torn asunder, it will be no more successful than it has been until now.
Gerard Powers is Professor of the Practice of Catholic Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame. He coordinates the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, linking scholars with Catholic leaders from war-torn countries. Powers specializes in the ethics of the use of force, the role of religion in conflict and peacebuilding, and religion, ethics and U.S. foreign policy. Thisarticle reprinted with permission from Arc of the Universe.