09/16/2013 02:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Real Stakes in Syria

With the U.S. and Russia now actively pursuing a nonmilitary resolution of the Syrian situation, Congress may escape the burden of having to decide whether the Syrian state's alleged gassing of civilians should be met with military action. But whatever the outcome of the attempt to reach a peaceful settlement, neither Congress nor the international community at large should overlook the great significance of our current moment. The Syrian crisis offers a hugely important test of the moral doctrine embodied in just war theory, which has for centuries been an invaluable factor limiting the destructive potential of war. In considering the other reasons that have been advanced in recent weeks favoring action against Syria -- which include establishing precedent for a strike against an Iranian nuclear bomb, deterring the use of such weapons against American soldiers, and aiding the rebels in Syria's civil war -- it is vital that we respond to the alleged chemical weapons attack with an eye to the deeper moral framework that the attack directly challenges.

The moral framework known as just war theory consists of norms that both specify when it is permissible to go to war (jus ad bellum) and establish prohibitions on how any war may be conducted (jus in bello). One of the jus ad bellum criteria is that such a decision be made by the appropriate authority, and in requesting congressional authorization the president acknowledges that criterion. The central issue before congress, however, concerns the two prohibitions at the core of jus in bello. These assert (1) that noncombatants must not be targeted, and (2) that barbaric weapons must not be used. If the Syrian government gassed civilians, it grossly violated both.

The broad endorsement of just war theory, and in particular of the jus in bello prohibitions, represents a hard-won and immensely important bulwark against the tendency of violent conflict, and war especially, to spiral out of control. It is what allows us to insist that even in the hell of war there remain moral constraints that we must honor. Indeed, we do not go too far in seeing the widespread agreement upon the norms of just war theory as a rather remarkable and rare instance of collective moral progress across the globe.

In considering how to respond should evidence indicate that the Syrian government targeted civilians with chemical gas, Congress and the international community alike must keep this achievement squarely in mind. If we do so, we will see that powerful and concerted action is the only response consistent with the commitment to uphold the moral prohibitions at the heart of the just war tradition. To see why, imagine that a college claimed to have a strict prohibition against alcohol in dorms, but that every time alcohol is discovered the dean simply says, "Now, now. We don't do that here." Without further action, we'd say the college just does not have the prohibition it claims. Prohibitions require consequences, the imposition of which we call punishment.

Thinking in terms of prohibitions and punishment helps us avoid the error of legislators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who want to know how a strike against Syria fits within an overall battlefield strategy. This asks the entirely wrong question. The main grounds for striking Syria have to do not with helping one side win a war, but with reinforcing a fundamental though fragile norm that guards against the moral savagery that war always threatens. The importance of such actions is surely one reason that jus ad bellum criteria permit wars of punishment.

Two considerations make reinforcing the norms governing war an especially important task for the U.S. to support now. First, ongoing technological innovation will only make prohibited weapons more destructive and available. Combating that trend is especially important. Second, since 9/11 the United States has countenanced a steady erosion of the norms of warfare (consider our approaches to assassination, Guantanamo Bay, and torture). Our departures from those norms raise genuine questions about the degree to which the U.S. can stand as a moral exemplar in the international realm. Congress has a chance to answer those questions.

To be sure, any military strike led by the U.S. will be painted by its critics as yet another instance of American power selectively deployed to advance its own interests. Our recent history invites that criticism, and for this reason we should be working actively to create an international coalition who will stand alongside us in affirming the place of morality within the dismal chaos of war. A unified response by an outraged international community would be ideal. But if in the end we must act alone, so be it. We should not let the cavils of cynics stand in the way of doing what we can to shore up what safeguards we have against the untrammeled violence endemic to war.