Secretary of State John Kerry’s powerful speech this afternoon makes it all too clear that the U.S. is progressing toward military strikes on Syria. There is dire humanitarian need, with the gassing of civilians being only the latest atrocity. Yet the Obama administration’s choice of tactics to meet that need are too limited; intervention by cruise missile will not sufficiently protect civilians and is therefore not ethically defensible.
Writing for the Huffington Post today, Jeff McMahan lays out the ethical framework for assessing the potential U.S. strikes on Syria. Given the Syrian government’s attacks on its civilians, strikes intended “to physically prevent further attacks against civilian areas and to deter those that cannot be prevented” seem to be called for within certain constraints. Those limiting factors are critical to the overall assement, however: “If strikes against Syria are to be proportionate, they must be effective in preventing or deterring harm to Syrian civilians (for example, by destroying delivery systems for chemical attacks) and must be directed at targets far from civilian areas.”
The question, then, is whether the cruise missile plan will, in fact, protect civilians. There are serious reasons to doubt whether the plan as currently constituted will achieve that goal.