Everyday Theology: Canada’s mission against ISIS highlights moral quandary

"...there does seem to be, as Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson frames it, “moral clarity”. Beyond that, the moral waters get muddy."

Initially, I was convinced that the war against ISIS could be morally justified.  Since ISIS is a malevolent force from which neither Iraq nor Syria are able to protect their populations, the international community has a responsibility to intervene; on this point, there does seem to be, as Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson frames it, “moral clarity”.  Beyond that, the moral waters get muddy.

Catholic “just war” theory and the United Nations Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle raise questions about the outcome of this war that we ignore at our peril. While both R2P and the just war criterion of “just cause” support the defense of populations, the goal to “degrade and contain” ISIS, as Defense Minister Jason Kenny describes it, may not be sufficient to justify successive waves of bombing.

Military intervention is one tool in the R2P toolbox.  Non-coercive tools are equally, if not, more important. In a video on the UN website, Special Advisor on R2P Jennifer Welsh affirms the important role of development tools in building inclusive and resilient societies that can withstand a political crisis before it spirals into violence.

According to just war theory, the “prospect of success” and “proportionality” are key aspects in evaluating the moral legitimacy of any war. The prospect of success in the fight against ISIS should look beyond the military objective of “degrade and contain.” It should also consider whether it is realistically possible to foster a robust society once the war is ended.  Proportionality looks at the harms resulting from military intervention and stipulates that a war should not create more evils than those it seeks to eliminate.

These principles, together with the hard lessons learned in Iraq, and the present day realities in Syria form the basis for a rigorous evaluation of the moral clarity of this war.

The ongoing civil war in Syria, which has displaced 11 million people and killed at least 220,000, certainly raises red flags about the prudence of airstrikes.  Some of the rebel groups fighting the Assad dictatorship are as savage as ISIS, and the Assad regime itself is known for its ruthlessness.

In his analysis on Canada’s mission for CBC, Brian Stewart argues that Canadian airstrikes in Syria could make an already chaotic situation even more deadly for civilians, embolden the Assad dictatorship, and lead to more sectarian fighting. Nor, he points out, is the elimination of ISIS a sure thing.

In 2003, when George W. Bush expanded the objectives for the war in Iraq to include humanitarian concerns, he projected a rosy future; the life of the average Iraqi citizen would dramatically improve with economic development, political reform and reconciliation; peace would reign supreme as old hatreds melted away.  None of this happened.

The American-led war against Iraq resulted in economic and political instability, and flamed the fires of sectarian violence. Groups like ISIS rose from the ashes.

In the aftermath of the Iraq war, just war theorists proposed categories of “just result” and “restoration”.  Just result mandates humanitarian aid both during and after a war. And restoration, like the non-coercive set of development tools in the R2P toolbox, focuses on things like organizing police and judicial institutions, protecting civil liberties and human rights, and building infrastructure.

Canada’s experience in Afghanistan suggests just result and restoration are illusive unless the international community is on the same page. Without a comprehensive, consistent multi-lateral strategy that uses development tools to help build civil society following war, humanitarian gains are in jeopardy.  Canada worked hard to provide infrastructure for irrigation from the Dahla Dam, vaccinate against polio and establish an environment for education through construction of schools. Yet, since Canada’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, these signature projects are threatened despite the contingent of American troops who are providing support for the Afghan National Security Forces. And, violence continues to be a reality of Afghan life.

On the surface, bombing ISIS appears to be a moral ‘no brainer’. The group must be stopped, but without a concrete, workable and sustainable plan beyond airstrikes, the coalition of nations fighting ISIS may find itself mired in war for years to come, engaged against the next malevolent group to rise from the ashes.

Moral legitimacy for military intervention requires more than “degrade and contain”.  It demands justice for the long haul because regardless of theories and principles, human life hangs in the balance.

Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com .