It’s rare for President Donald Trump to mention God, and rarer still for him to name-drop the Almighty three times in a single short speech.
But Trump, who was raised Presbyterian, couched his justification for the US missile strikes against Syria last week in unusually religious terms.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had attacked his own citizens with chemical weapons, Trump said, echoing the findings of US intelligence agencies. Eighty Syrians, including women and children, essentially choked to death.
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said. Moments later, the president asked for “God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world,” before asking God to bless the United States “and the entire world.”
But was Trump morally justified in launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in response to the chemical attack? CNN put that question to ethics experts from five faiths: Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish and Muslim.
Some answers were long and detailed, drawing on centuries-old theories about waging “just wars.” Others were shorter and unambiguous.
Here’s what the religious leaders had to say.
Hozan Alan Senauke, vice abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center in California
My initial impression is that these were misguided missiles.
I’m not an absolute pacifist, but there are few circumstances when military force is called for. Certainly, the targeting of civilians with gas is completely reprehensible. And I am not an isolationist.
But I question, both in a political and a moral sense, the efficacy of this missile attack. Who was it targeting? Did it send a message, and to whom? It seems incredibly murky. Even a week after the attacks, I have not heard an articulated strategy for what this attack was supposed to accomplish.
In a sense, the Buddha’s guidelines for speech also might be applied to action: Is your speech true, useful, timely and beneficial? By any of those criteria this attack just doesn’t make sense. I can’t see how it is conducive to anything but more destabilization.
And why are we closing our doors to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are victims not only of Assad but also of ISIS? Our government has expressed no compassion for them.
Gerard Powers, director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the University of Notre Dame
The humanitarian case for military intervention is clear. Syria is a failed state, torn apart by some of the world’s most ruthless killers. The use of chemical weapons is an egregious act, but the airstrikes seem like an afterthought given the many more egregious acts that were not considered worthy of response.
Unilateral intervention, especially without congressional authorization, is morally problematic. The UN Security Council should authorize interventions in places like Syria. Since the Security Council, hamstrung largely by Russian intransigence, has proven itself incapable of acting in a responsible way in Syria, other collective bodies should act.
Bombing is not a morally serious way to protect threatened populations. Because of the grave risks involved, bombing should not be about making statements or political points; it must be tied to a serious and viable strategy for protecting the Syrian people. The lack of a credible government or opposition in Syria makes it virtually impossible to have a serious strategy.
For most of the past 14 years, the United States has bombed, fought, trained and armed the Iraqi government. Yet Iraq is as violent and unstable as ever. And Iraq is relatively easy compared to Syria. What are the realistic objectives of our military action in Syria? To defend civilians against ISIS? Against the Syrian government? Against all armed groups that threaten civilians? To rebuild a nation?
Because past US 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.
Scott Waller, chair of political science department at Biola University
Without going into a long dissertation, the strike on the air base seems to meet most, if not all, of the traditional principles of a just military action, listed here:
1. Was this a last resort? Were nonmilitary options exhausted?
2. Was the strike against a legitimate government that was recognized by the community of nations?
3. Was the strike in response to a just cause in that there was real harm suffered by innocents?
4. Was there reasonable probability of success with this strike?
5. Was the aim or purpose of the military response to promote justice or reestablish peaceful conditions?
6. Was the use of force employed proportional to the damage heretofore inflicted?
7. Was there reasonable attempt to avoid civilian casualties?
The most notable aspects of the strike that mark it as “just” in this particular instance are #3, #5, #6, and #7.
Given that this particular air base was used to launch the gas attack, a cruise missile strike on that same airbase sends a clear message to the Assad regime that no such future war crimes will be tolerated.
No doubt, the United States has the ability to wipe out all of Assad’s active airbases, but the targeted strike of that particular airbase with weapons of this sort sends a clear message of deterrence while also being proportional (i.e. the US didn’t nuke the base).
Given that the attack occurred in the middle of the night also demonstrates that an intent to limit civilian casualties was present.
Again, the deterrent impact cannot be undersold here. The “red line” drawn drawn by President Obama a number of years ago was crossed by Assad, whose regime has a clear record of of atrocities.
Something with more teeth needed to be done. It communicates to the parties involved that they no longer have a free hand. It also sends a message to bad actors around the world that similar war crimes will be met with overwhelming force.
Rabbi Michael Broyde, projects director of Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion
As I understand the facts, Trump struck a military target directly connected to the gas attack. To the extent that there is ever a situation in which military force is proper and appropriate, from a Jewish legal and ethical standpoint, it is to defend civilians against just such an attack. Attacking the airfield is the most ethically defensible thing to do.
Where this will lead, and whether it will actually succeed, as an academic I don’t really know. These are matters of military intelligence.
But if you take as a given that Assad and the Syrian government used sarin gas on innocent women and children, attacking the airfield is a humanitarian gesture and a proper use of force against a gross violation of international law, which bars the use of chemical weapons.
Should the Trump administration be criticized for not admitting more Syrian refugees? Whenever a person does a good thing you can always ask, what more can he be doing? In my view, there might be many other good deeds the Trump administration should be doing, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a good deed. And it’s important not to let this good deed pass without comment.
Ustadh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, professor of Islamic law and theology at Zaytuna College
Syria is a big mess as you know. It has really polarized the Muslim community in the United States.
For some, any attack on Assad is seen as laudatory regardless of who the President is. For others, there is deep suspicion about the intent of US action. Some direct their suspicion toward Trump, while others doubt the intentions of the bipartisan war hawks who have significant influence on our foreign policy.
In terms of Islamic law, there is little basis in my view to support an attack (like the airstrike against Syria) or practically any that involves modern weaponry, which kill indiscriminately. Those so-called “smart bombs” are not as smart as their name sounds. This rule applies to both the Syrian regime and the rebels.
I don’t see anything from the prophetic tradition that would support WMD’s or less destructive forms of weaponry that cannot discriminate between friend and foe, victimizer and bystander.
Naturally, there is greater outrage about the use of chemical weapons. And I haven’t seen any ironclad proof that they were used by the regime. It is also reasonable to think that they were being stockpiled by the rebels.
Even so-called “conventional weapons” can be extremely destructive, and too many people are focusing on the nature of the weapon, rather than the fact that homicide is still homicide.
Should it matter if it is committed with a knife, gun, poison or automobile?
Dead is dead. And when it’s unjustified, the kind of weapon used shouldn’t matter.