The new face of conservatism

my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Conservatism has had a bad rap. The cartoon stereotype made by mainstream or social media is of a humorless old man or spinsterish woman, angry at others’ happiness -- misogynistic, homophobic haters more concerned with lecturing people about rules than about people themselves, sitting alone in a darkened room. But times change.
Michelle Malkin / Katherine Timpf / Matt Walsh / Greg Gutfeld
Poll results released last September by the Pew Forum indicated possible changes in US citizens’ beliefs about religion and the role it plays in politics. But as described by Maggie Gallagher (for National Review), “the poll was also remarkable for showing a rather dramatic drop in support for gay marriage in one year, after years of uninterrupted rises. Do you favor ‘allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally’ is an imperfect question, but it does allow tracking across time. Overall support for gay marriage dropped from 54% to 49%.”

Also, “white Evangelical support for gay marriage dropped 4 percentage points, from 22% to 18%; Catholic support dropped 9 percentage points, from 61% to 52%. (White mainline Protestant opinion was virtually unchanged, rising from 56% support to 57% support.)”

Reasons have been given for this perceptible shift in attitudes. Whatever it may be, it is also undeniable that the conservative movement is gaining a lot from the coming into prominence of younger and brasher conservatives, giving a fresh, funny, articulate, intelligent, even sexier approach to political discourse. And while their conservatism may vary on social or economic issues, nevertheless it still boils down to personal freedom and self-responsibility.

We start with one of Filipino roots: 43-year-old Michelle Malkin. Born in Philadelphia after her parents immigrated from the Philippines, Malkin (originally Maglalang until she married Jesse Malkin in 1993) got started in her career while studying in Oberlin, a college known for strong progressive views. It was when she got exposed to the viciousness of liberal response to her personal conservative views that she realized her true calling. As she recalled in one interview: “It was seeing the violent paroxysms it caused on the Left that really put me on my way to a career in opinion journalism. I really just came into being as a political journalist toward the end of my campus experience, and it was really after I had left and started, you know, writing on my own. It was really more social conservatism than economic conservatism that I started with for my column-writing.”

She appears on the Fox News Channel, particularly for Hannity and Fox and Friends. But it is her founding of Hot Air, an internet broadcast network, and Twitchy.com, “a ground-breaking Twitter curation site powered by a kinetic staff of social media junkies,” that made her a major player in the conservative movement.

Then there is 25-year-old writer, commentator and comedian Katherine Timpf. Currently working for the National Review, she has also guested on the popular Red Eye.

Known for her witty, sometimes sarcastic Facebook rants, her articles on the National Review sparkles with humor, self-deprecation and insight on the recent comedies (or tragedies) of the Left. A recent profile on her had a former teacher saying of Timpf: “Kat is genius. Certainly, she’s the leading wit of her generation. But I also think she’s one of those unique folks America produces only every once in a while.”

Characteristically, it is Timpf who explains her appeal best: “I feel like I’m able to explain things in a different way, especially in the conservative movement, because so many of the voices -- even the young ones -- sound like they’re 50 and cautious. It needs some spice. The message of freedom should be cool, and that’s what I want to do.”

Cool may not be the adjective normally given to 27-year-old Matt Walsh. But he's certainly fast becoming a leading voice in the conservative movement. Intense, direct, articulate and incredibly frighteningly smart, Walsh writes about everything: same-sex marriage, suicide, dating and family, plus a marvelous extended rant on why the saying “if you can’t accept me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best” is one of the most idiotic things ever said. Although he said the same about “don’t judge.” But rightly so.

Walsh has a blog (which gets around 2 million hits a month) but his conservative writings can also be found in TheBlaze.com. Joel Cheatwood, president and chief content officer of TheBlaze, says it this way: “Matt Walsh stands out from other voices online in that he has cracked the code to writing unique content that people want to share with their friends.”

Finally, today’s leader of the pack: cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking, heavy-metal-listening Greg Gutfeld. Catch him on Red Eye or The Five. Or read his books Joy of Hate and Not cool. I am running out of space so I’ll just say this: he’s better, smarter, funnier than Jon Stewart. ‘Nuff said.


The Bar exam is what we make of it

my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

One readily picks up a number of bad habits from Cambridge. But it does have its uses. By osmosis, it lends its students the art of self-deprecation, which can surprisingly lead a man to a more self-contented outlook. No Cambridge man would directly say he actually studied in Cambridge. Hence why it is utterly vulgar for any Cantabian to point to another individual and declare: “It’s obvious that you did not graduate from [state name of university here].” It’s simply not done and is utterly bad form.

I mention Cambridge because it is October. Cambridge does have a somewhat decent law faculty and the Michaelmas term begins this month. October is also the month of the Philippine Bar exam.

It is normal for people to bash the Bar exam and certainly understandable that those taking it now to be creatively cursing it. Although I do notice that it is quite rare for those who topped or ranked highly in the Bar to be superciliously critical of it.

To say, however, that the Bar exam needs improvement is to state the blindingly obvious. The question really is: To improve it for what purpose? Another is: How to improve it?

To consider the Bar exam as the legal profession’s guardian for quality control is to misunderstand it. Like any government creation, it should always be only subsidiary in function to the people who comprise the society that created it.

The Bar is no fundamental defender of standards in the same way that the Supreme Court (or any government branch) is no ultimate defender of democracy and the Constitution.

Clearly, the Bar is a necessity. A nuisance, but still a necessity. If even for a thing like joining a law journal would require testing its applicants, then the logic of the Bar becomes evident.

But the standards of the legal profession cannot be made to rest on the Bar. It simply will not be equipped to do so. Of what use is making the exam more analytical, more philosophical, when you already have a passing percentage that hovers around 15-20% year in and year out? And people still complain about the quality of those 15-20%.

When I was a 2009 Bar examiner for Political Law and Public International Law, I had the disappointment of seeing numerous (and I mean numerous) answers from people who graduated from law schools but do not know the meaning of the word “exonerate.”

In the years traveling to different countries for my international trade law work for multinationals and for the government (including assisting in state-to-state disputes), I saw the relative weakness of our legal profession’s understanding of public international law and its (along with foreign laws) relationship with domestic law. Which probably explains the impression of the general public (rightly in my view) of our treaties being overly generous to our partner countries or of peace agreements obviously detrimental to our national sovereign objectives.

But simply slashing down further the number that pass the Bar is simplistic. We have a “lawyer density” of around 2.5 lawyers per 1,000 Filipinos (at an assumed 40,000 lawyers vis-à-vis an estimated 100,000,000 Filipinos). This makes our lawyer density well below that of the US’ 3.65 lawyers per 1,000 US citizens.

But the legal profession today is such that a huge number of those 40,000 lawyers will not be into litigation. Most instead would use their law degrees for careers in business, politics or academe. Thus, the number of (quality) lawyers actually providing traditional legal work is fantastically small, the short supply likely explaining the country’s high legal costs (particularly for the poor).

The problem, therefore, is not the Bar exams but the law schools, their faculties (and the ideologies they peddle), and a legal culture that has not caught up with the changed realities of our profession. It is they who churn out thousands of law graduates who (through no fault of theirs, as everyone has different aptitudes) should not have been into freshman law in the first place.

And while the medical profession efficiently evolved, from its schools engaged in team teaching (thus exposing students to different expertise for each topic) to classifying doctors as general practitioners, diplomates and fellows (thus objectively letting patients know their doctor’s professional caliber), the legal profession is still stuck with age or seniority (or even family or school connections) as basis for teaching posts or for being labeled as “expert.”

Law is a compellingly elegant subject, the profession indeed a noble one. But massive changes have to be brought into legal education, education as a whole, and in the local culture of the profession for the Bar exam to be brought into its rightful less significant role than it has now.

Unless we recognize that, determined to do that, then we will just have to confine ourselves to saying good luck to all the law graduates taking the Bar this month.

Pro-virtue, pro-family economy

my Trade Tripper column in a weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

This is continuing from last week’s column (“We need better thinking on poverty and development”), which criticized the present “progressive” mentality of transforming government into some sort of large welfare administrator. And yet, with rising unemployment and underemployment, the weird logic is to pour even more money, on the hope that such policies will somehow eventually work. From a high of P62.6 billion, the government wants to go much higher: P78 billion for its Conditional Cash Transfer-Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) in the 2015 proposed budget.

Sadly, such is misguided. Whatever good those programs may initially have brought seems to have plateaued and could even be harmful to Filipinos.

There are lessons to be learned from a country that has even more financial resources. Five decades ago, the United States decided to launch its own anti-poverty campaign. And yet, as Ed Feulner relates, success never came: “That was $22 trillion ago... Yet the poverty rate is essentially the same as it was 50 years ago.”

The problem is the failure to understand the nature of poverty and the tendency to romanticize it. This Feulner effectively points out: “When most people hear that a family is living in poverty, they naturally picture people suffering from significant material deprivation... But government surveys show that many of those officially designated as poor are surprisingly well-off. Less than 2% are homeless, and only one in 10 live in mobile homes. The typical house or apartment of the poor is in good repair and uncrowded. Indeed, the typical ‘poor’ family has air-conditioning, cable or satellite TV, and a computer in the home. Forty percent have a wide-screen HDTV. Another 40% have Internet access.”

The scenario is pretty much the same here. And yet, despite the continuing ineffectiveness, the temptation to throw even more money got stronger. In the US, as Stephen White relates: “The federal government currently spends about $800 billion on 92 separate anti-poverty programs, yet the poverty rate today is higher than it’s been in decades.” Needless to say, our CCT program will meet the same fate.

The answer, I believe, is not in throwing money at people but at developing people. This was the implication of the study I mentioned last week (“Childhood family income, adolescent violent criminality and substance misuse: quasi-experimental total population study” by Amir Sariaslan and his colleagues, British Journal of Psychiatry, Aug. 21, 2014). As The Economist puts it: the findings “suggest that merely topping up people’s incomes, though it may well be a good idea for other reasons, will not by itself address questions of bad behavior. The second raises the possibility that the problem of intergenerational poverty may be self-reinforcing,” what with “the lack of impulse-control they engender also tends to reduce someone’s earning capacity.”

Hence, why I go back again to the idea of focusing on policies that foster, encourage and strengthen virtues and the traditional family. Virtue, of which the traditional family is the prime teacher, in people is what makes democratic societies work. As Michael Novak wrote: “The prospering of free societies depends on certain moral and cultural practices.”

So rather than have government stepping in and trying to supplant the roles that is rightly of the family and religious organizations, the doctrine of “subsidiarity” (which is embedded in our social thinking and even Constitution) should instead be vigorously applied to allow the family and such religious groups to do what they’re good at: developing upright citizens.

As Paul Ryan correctly points out with regard to the US setting but whose words could also be relevant here: “For too long, the federal government has tried to supplant, and not to support, the people fighting poverty on the front lines -- families, neighborhoods, community groups. In the fight against poverty, the people ultimately are the vanguard, and government is the rearguard. Government protects the supply lines. But it is the people themselves who take to the front lines.”

Subsidiarity works in tandem with the notion of the “common good,” a concept that many people seem to fantastically misunderstand. The best definition of common good can be found in John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights: “a set of conditions which enables the members of a community to attain for themselves reasonable objectives, or to realize reasonably for themselves the value (s), for the sake of which they have reason to collaborate with each other (positively and/or negatively) in a community.” Note the repeated mention of the attainment “for themselves” by the people.

The point: if our government would instead work harder to support the family and community groups, rather than striving to be the be all of everybody’s existence and have the people dependent on it, we might finally get somewhere in our efforts to deal with poverty.


Better thinking on poverty and development

my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The Philippines today is a country of contradictions: it proclaims economic growth with rising unemployment, good governance with deteriorating infrastructure and broken transportations systems, progress with worsening traffic, and pleas for tolerance and gender equality with increased incidents of rape, teenage pregnancies and marriage annulments. But then, this is what happens when one wants all for nothing.

Unfortunately, this government’s vision (if it has one) does not seem to work for the simple reason that it cannot align with reality and common sense.

Consider that even though Filipinos are taxed the highest in ASEAN but with the lowest of wages (P5,500 a month will get you classified as middle class), it also has the highest unemployment rate. But what’s really disturbing is that almost 80% of our unemployed are from below 35 years old, the age considered most productive and yet formative. And 20% of the unemployed are college graduates.

The foregoing is within the context of the Filipino working among the longest hours. And those work hours do not include the two- to four-hour commute to and from work that many Filipinos go through every day, commuting hours that could get longer (according to the government itself).

Our people pay one of the most expensive rice in Asia, we have water scarcity among floods, and constant threats of power shortage.

The government’s solution, which is to throw money at the poor (via the Conditional Cash Transfer, or CCT), has not worked. And it doesn’t apply to our unemployed but educated population. Not only is there work scarcity, the disincentive to work is even greater.

I’ve long railed at the government’s progressive policy mind-set that, as David Brooks puts it, “aims to place individuals in unmediated dependency on a government” and encourages an entitlement culture. The President’s characterization of himself as the “father of the country” is indicative of that. But this has reached the level of ridiculousness: why make people dependent on the government when it can’t be depended on?

Because from the beginning, it can’t. Our society was constructed along the lines of self-governance and personal accountability, not “progressivism.”

But, in words that are applicable here, Paul Ryan (in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece) aptly describes the pitfalls of such thinking: “Over the years, we’ve slowly been adding to the number of benefits that government provides to an increasing number of our citizens. Some of those benefits are worthy, laudable commitments, but others aren’t really the responsibility of government or the kind of thing we can afford. If we keep on this way, we’ll reach a tipping point where there are too many people receiving government benefits and not enough people to pay for those benefits. That’s an untenable problem.”

There are severe limits to what the government can do, despite its propensity to think otherwise: “the tipping point we’re approaching is the result of a liberal progressive mind-set that seeks a larger, more active government and lets bureaucrats decide what’s best for everyone instead of allowing citizens to govern themselves. Its response to every social problem is more government, more bureaucracy and more taxpayer money.”

This column has warned repeatedly about the dangers of such an entitlement culture. But now, scientific data may even show that welfare entitlements like the CCT, no matter how huge the allotment, are futile at best.

The Economist reported a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry that found that “families which had started poor and got richer, the younger children -- those born into relative affluence -- were just as likely to misbehave when they were teenagers as their elder siblings had been. Family income was not, per se, the determining factor.

“That suggests two, not mutually exclusive, possibilities. One is that a family’s culture, once established, is ‘sticky’ -- that you can, to put it crudely, take the kid out of the neighborhood, but not the neighborhood out of the kid. Given, for example, children’s propensity to emulate elder siblings whom they admire, that sounds perfectly plausible. The other possibility is that genes which predispose to criminal behavior (several studies suggest such genes exist) are more common at the bottom of society than at the top, perhaps because the lack of impulse-control they engender also tends to reduce someone’s earning capacity.

“Neither of these conclusions is likely to be welcome to social reformers. The first suggests that merely topping up people’s incomes, though it may well be a good idea for other reasons, will not by itself address questions of bad behavior. The second raises the possibility that the problem of intergenerational poverty may be self-reinforcing.”

Our constitutional system espouses the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, virtue, strong traditional families, self-responsibility, and the common good. All of these have specific meanings that have centuries of thought and experience behind them. Perhaps the government would like to acquaint itself with these before tinkering around with progressive social programs that do nothing but throw away huge amounts of the people’s money.

ASEAN integration? Forget about it.

my Trade Tripper column in a weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

This is my second article on the upcoming 2015 ASEAN integration (see ASEAN Integration, March 14, 2014). Many still express concern about it, although most of the perceived issues are really off, arising from two misconceptions: the first is that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will lead to a common market in the mold of the European Union, and the second is that the Philippines needs to prepare for 2015. Both are incorrect.

The AEC is not envisioned as an Asian version of the European Union. The AEC, at best, would be one of continuing evolution. As pointed out by Coraline Goron: “The ASEAN Economic Blueprint presents two main objectives: to transform ASEAN into a single market and production base and make it a competitive economic region. One should be aware, however, that despite the bold language, the ideas put forward in this document remain significantly lower than the economic integration in the EU. Notably, no customs union and no single currency are envisaged.”

By the way, a “customs union” focuses on uniform external tariffs, which is different from a free trade agreement or FTA (which also has lowered tariffs but maintains separate external trade policies).

Finally, the idea that integration will take place next year is not exactly accurate. ASEAN integration has long begun. In fact, we have long been living in an integrated ASEAN. The truth is that many of the provisions of the ASEAN integration plans are already in place: from the lowered tariffs, to increased FTA activity, to the smoothening of customs procedures.

As of 2012, Philippine compliance with ASEAN integration is at 76.9%. Many members are at more than 80%. But Vietnam is still at 79.6%, Cambodia 76.6% and Brunei 75.5% (lower than the Philippines).

In other words, intra-ASEAN trade is already virtually duty-free, providing a relative advantage (price-wise) on the cost of goods when compared to other countries. Plus, note the various FTAs that ASEAN has with other countries

Having said that, there is certainly work to be done. The question really is not the dangers that ASEAN integration can bring (if there are any) but rather if the Philippines itself is ready to take advantage of it or be left again in the dust.

One challenge for the Philippines is to realize and manage the transition from a negotiations-based system to a more legal, rule-oriented paradigm. As far as legalities are concerned, the main source of Philippine obligations is found in Article 5.2 of the ASEAN Charter: “Member States shall take all necessary measures, including the enactment of appropriate legislation, to effectively implement the provisions of this Charter and to comply with all obligations of membership.”

Incidentally, Article 24 states that all disputes “relating to specific ASEAN instruments shall be settled through the mechanisms and procedures provided for in such instruments.”

With such general-sounding obligations, our government is nevertheless mandated to review Philippine laws to determine compliance on matters relating to: tariff and non-tariff barriers, rules of origin, customs integration, professional and employment qualifications, investment laws, capital markets, securities standards, intellectual property, taxation, competition policy, and the like. Our courts and administrative agencies must now be brought up to speed on the demands of ASEAN.

Incidentally, the foregoing also highlights the need for lawyers not only with professed international law capabilities but also business orientation and ASEAN competence. Emphatically, there is a necessity now for our lawyers to develop an “international” outlook. Which is inevitable, what with international law forming part of the laws of the Philippines.

But this globalization of our lawyers’ mindsets must also be based on pragmatic considerations, including particularly our nation’s interests. The decision of some local law schools to favor World Trade Organization or international commercial arbitration courses (or even that of the European Commission), for example, has sadly come at the expense of lawyers being completely unfamiliar with the legal systems of our neighboring trading partners in ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Community.

Finally, to reiterate what I wrote the last time, what is the point of opened markets if we don’t have the know-how and capacity to satisfy those markets? And what is the point of opening up the country for investments if the environment does not make it attractive for investors?

Our use of the ASEAN FTA benefits continues to hover at a mere 20%. This low rate has never been resolved, and even up to now a lot of Philippine firms are still baffled by the mechanics of FTAs.

Despite reported improvements in the area of competitiveness, our foreign direct investments, ease of doing business, power, transport, productivity, infrastructure, education, and rule of law protection lag behind most other ASEAN countries. Our worsening traffic, rather than a sign of progress, allegedly costs the country an amount equal to 7% of the GDP.

So, really: the best way to deal with ASEAN integration is to forget about it. And instead focus on improving ourselves.


Competition law? Maybe.

was my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

I'm not sure if people are aware of this, but if there is a piece of legislation that policy makers are going gaga over to get passed, it is not the Freedom of Information law. Rather it is the competition law, now in its present form as House Bill 1133 (partnered with Senate Bill 2282, both known as the Fair Competition Act). Unfortunately, the people pushing for this law miss the point: yes, clearly we need a competition law. But we need one that will work effectively for the interests of Filipinos.

Teddy Boy Locsin was spot on in his Sept. 4 Teditorial: “If the anti-competition law seeks to stop giant local companies from keeping local competition down and foreign competition out, then that law is a yes. But if it seeks to break up local giants now dominating the local market and getting a lion’s share of a cash-rich country after beating the foreigners who were taking all the money long ago, then it is a big, fat no.”

One fundamental problem with present competition bills is their implicit reliance on this huge assumption: monopolies are bad and government is the solution. But note, not even our Constitution sees monopolies in such light: the “State shall regulate or prohibit monopolies when the public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition shall be allowed.”

And as Nonoy Oplas, president of Minimal Government Thinkers Inc., correctly pointed out: “When government intervenes hard to force or pretend to attain social equality, such intervention will naturally result in subsidizing the lazy and irresponsible, while penalizing and over-taxing the efficient and industrious.” For him, “fierce competition is fair competition. Government-managed or protected competition is not fair competition.”

I also concur with his assessment that, at least for the present, the “best anti-monopolization regulation that government can do is to have rule of law strictly enforced.”

Indeed, the size of our market should lead us to appreciate the idea of “natural monopolies,” whereby maximum efficiency is derived by way of economies of scale through one or two suppliers.

As such, Filipinos should be supportive of even larger Filipino conglomerates. Take San Miguel Corp. (or PLDT or PAL), for example, which, despite its size and reach, could not really be considered possessing monopoly power due to the nature and threat presented by global (or regional) competition.

As I’ve written several times before, Filipinos should be more discerning about the strong possibility of foreign corporations sneaking up and acquiring Filipino companies or influence to the point that monopoly powers are exercised from beyond Philippine jurisdiction, constricting Filipino entrepreneurial efforts and damaging local consumer interests.

Again, Teddy Boy Locsin (who’s not a trade lawyer but has more sense than most competition experts) gets it exactly right: “Big is better if it is Filipino because capital has a nationality,” but “big is bad if it is foreign, which will destroy what we have, milk it by big bonuses, siphon profits abroad, and make sure no Filipino ever gets big again. If foreign competition wants to break up Filipino giants, let the free market do it. Do not make a Filipino law tailor-made for foreigners do the job for them. Foreign competition does not believe in Filipino competition in their home countries. It only believes in foreign competition here and elsewhere abroad.”

Another area we need to look at is the relationship that competition law has with corruption, and thus, relatedly, the need to constrain the ill effects of having both political and economic power held by a select number of families in the country, which is something that even the latest drafts of our competition laws seem to ignore.

Because, what is the point of having trade commissions, legal procedures, and the like if in the end the judged and the judge are from the same side of the fence? Competition laws work in the United States and Europe as the people who lead in business would not be the same people who comprise government, thus serving as a check upon each other. While undoubtedly relationships exists between the two groups in any country, that is a far cry from having the same families actually in control of both business and government. Which is the case in the Philippines.

Finally, why are the competition law drafts merely aping the texts of foreign competition laws? After all, US laws are worded generally, which is understandable as the core provisions were made a century ago. But that was followed by more than a hundred years of US jurisprudence (plus that of Europe and Japan) that we should have learned from and could have been incorporated into the draft competition law, thus giving the law more depth and precision.

We need to really put more thought in crafting our competition policy law, considering the profound effect it will have on the country’s economy and Filipino lives.


Killing ISIS

was my Trade Tripper column for the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The outrage generated by ISIS’ atrocities effected unity of sorts among people of different persuasions. Except for the Left in the United States, which is incapable of grasping the notion that President Obama’s foreign policy is effete at best and likely nurtured ISIS’ rise, many are of the belief that the world’s governments should do something concrete to stop the terrorist onslaught. Right that sentiment may be, but in international law terms it’s easier said than done.

Which is ironic, as Pope Francis himself was reported to have approved of the air strikes against ISIS (more on that later). The legality, however, of the air strikes (or any military move by a foreign power) against ISIS is, believe it or not, questionable at this time.

Colum Lynch in a Foreign Policy piece correctly pointed out: “International legal experts say the United States has an uphill battle convincing many of its allies that there is a legal rationale for extending strikes into Syria. The UN Charter offers two major paths to military action. A government is permitted, under Article 51, to use force against an armed aggressor in self-defense. It can also invite foreign powers to help it defend itself, as Iraq has done. The UN Security Council can, under Article 42, authorize a military intervention. But those roads may be blocked for the time being.

“The Syrian government has not approved American air power. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned that Bashar al-Assad’s regime would consider American military intervention in its territory an ‘act of aggression’ unless it coordinated its activities with Damascus -- a condition Washington has rejected. And Russia -- while no friend of the Islamic State -- may not be inclined to approve a Security Council resolution granting Washington a blank check in Syria.”

Ryan Goodman, on the other hand, stated: “In conducting attacks against ISIS, the United States might assert either (1) the right of individual self-defense due to ISIS’ direct threat to the United States; or (2) the right of collective self-defense in coming to the aid of Iraq. At this point, the former is a weak one -- without a truly imminent or actual ‘armed attack’ against the United States. The latter is solid.

“But what about US forces crossing the border into Syria? The US government would likely assert that Syria is ‘unwilling or unable’ to deal effectively with the ISIS threat. This is the same prerogative that the United States invokes in other parts of the world (think: the US operation to kill Osama bin Laden without seeking Pakistan’s approval). The ‘unwilling or unable’ test is now a fairly well settled part of the US government’s legal position. Nevertheless, it remains controversial under international law.”

Regarding “collective self-defense” that Goodman indicated above, the same could be legally defensible but politically difficult. Considering the dynamics involved in Security Council votes, as well as Obama’s continuing inability to show leadership in this matter, for it to authorize actual military force is currently improbable.

As for the Pope himself agreeing to the use of force, what he actually said was aptly described by Think Progress as follows: “‘I can only say this: It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,’ the pontiff said in reference to ISIS, according to CNN. ‘I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means.’ ‘But we must also have memory,’ he added. ‘How many times under this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor the powers [that intervened] have taken control of peoples, and have made a true war of conquest.’”

Indeed, under the teachings of the Church, military force may be morally permissible if “the following conditions are simultaneously present:
• the suffering inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain;

• all other peaceful means must have been shown to be ineffective;

• there are well-founded prospects of success;

• the use of arms, especially given the power of modern weapons of mass destruction, must not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

And even then, “during a war the moral law always remains valid. It requires the humane treatment of noncombatants, wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. Deliberate actions contrary to the law of nations, and the orders that command such actions are crimes, which blind obedience does not excuse. Acts of mass destruction must be condemned and likewise the extermination of peoples or ethnic minorities, which are most grievous sins. One is morally bound to resist the orders that command such acts.”

Which just goes to show that, even in war, what is moral is not necessarily legal. And vice versa.