In a commentary in the Toronto Star, SJD student and Vanier Scholar Haim Abraham analyzes President Trump's speech regarding the U. S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base in the context of International Law ("Trump’s misguided logic for bombing Syria," April 7, 2017).
Read the full commentary on the Toronto Star website, or below.
Trump’s misguided logic for bombing Syria
By Haim Abraham
April 7, 2017
Thursday night, the U.S. launched an intense missile strike on a Syrian airbase. In a short speech made from his Mar a Lago resort in Florida, President Trump gave his reasons for ordering this strike.
While the merits of this strike, as well as its possible consequences, are currently being debated, much can be learned about Trump’s moral conception about war. And this should be made clear — although the strike on Syria is not part of a fully fledged war against it, nonetheless it is an act of war. As such, it is bound not only by the international laws that govern belligerent activities, but also by moral constraints on the conduct of war.
Trump began his speech by describing how Syria breached moral norms regarding war. He said, “Syria launched a horrific chemical attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of hopeless men, women, and children ... Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of god should ever suffer such horror.”
And indeed, the moral norms that guide the use of force in war dictate that civilians who are not engaged in combat shall not be the target of an attack. Those men, women, and children are innocent in the sense that they are not posing a threat, and hence making them the object of an attack could justify the intervention of other sovereign nations for the protection of those civilians.
But Trump did not end there. Instead, he provided two additional justifications for his order.
The second was based on Syria breaching it obligations under international law, which prohibit the use of chemical weapons. Trump said “there can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chimerical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the UN security council.” However, this breach alone does not justify, according to international law, an act of war from another sovereign state that was not part of the dispute.
Perhaps this is why Trump justified the strike on a third basis: U.S. national security interests. In Trump’s words: “it was in the vital national security interest of the U.S. to prevent and deter the use of deadly chemical weapons … Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the U.S. and its allies … Tonight, I call on all civilized nations in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
From a moral and legal perspective, if a state is under a genuine immanent threat it can act in self-defence and engage in acts of war. But do the national security reasons Trump gave amount to such genuine immanent threat?
The answer is no. An analysis of the text reveals three national security threats that Trump wishes to prevent: The use of chemical weapons in a terror attack aimed at the U.S., a destabilized Middle East, and refugee immigration.
While the prevention of terror attacks against the U.S. could be a reason to engage in counterterrorism activities, it is hard to see how the situation in Syria poses a genuine immediate threat to the U.S.
Similarly, a destabilized Middle East is not in the U.S. best interests, but this risk is not of the kind that will justify an act of war.
Lastly, and most obviously, Syrian refugees do not pose by mere status or existence any threat that would justify the U.S. strike, despite the well-known beliefs Trump holds on the threat the U.S. faces by admitting refugees from the region.
Were Trump to justify the strike solely, or mainly, on the grounds of international humanitarian intervention it would have been proper. But the majority of his speech was dedicated to the risk Syria posed on the U.S., which is not of the kind of genuine imminent risks that justify the resort to war.
If Trump believes the content of his speech to be true, then he either he is misunderstanding Syria’s threat to U.S. national security, that he does not give much value to the sovereignty of other nations, or that he is unaware of the legal and moral constraints of war.