When President Barack Obama announced his reasons for allowing limited air strikes against the militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, his decision came along with a number of justifications. There did seem to be a possible impending genocide, yes. Yazidis, a religious minority group closely allied with the Kurds, were then huddling on a mountaintop, scared for their lives as ISIS forces moved in closer and closer. But as important, asserted Obama, was the presence of American personnel in the Kurdish city of Erbil. Protecting those Americans seemed to offer the ultimate reason. “That’s my responsibility as commander in chief,” Obama said.
Would the president have intervened if those Americans weren’t there? The fact that this is a question at all says a lot about United States foreign policy at the moment.
At some level it’s not hard to understand Obama’s caution. After over a decade of war in in the region, Americans want to be reassured, as the president put it, that he will “not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq.” Obama does understand the American people much better than some Republican lawmakers and right-wing ideologues who seem to ignore the unwillingness in the country to expend any more blood or treasure even for the most enlightened of causes.
But that scarred experience of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has also led to too much caution. Regardless of her possibly political motivations for saying so, Hillary Clinton was right to raise a critical eyebrow in her recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg when asked about Obama’s foreign policy motto, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” This doesn’t offer much of an “organizing principle,” Clinton asserted.
This overcautious approach is the reason why Obama chose regrettably to steer clear of the conflict in Syria, even early on when arming moderate and pro-Western forces among the resistance could have made a huge difference. At least it could have helped avoid the vacuum that allowed jihadi forces to take over and complicate the situation.
We should, of course, stop for a moment and say what is seldom said, that it is George W. Bush who bears responsibility for sending us into a war of choice for bad reasons that thereby sapped our willingness to engage in wars of choice for good reasons.
But that was then and this is now. And if ever there was an enemy that should push Americans — and, hopefully, the administration — out of their isolationist mood it’s ISIS.
Let’s review what triggered Obama’s intervention. In June, ISIS had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and was pushing its way toward Kurdistan, whose military force, the Peshmerga, were having an increasingly difficult time warding them off. At risk were tens of thousands of Iraqis who had taken refuge on a barren mountain range near the Syrian border because — and here’s the significant part — ISIS wants to kill them simply because they are not Muslims.
This is a group that makes even Al Qaeda look “tolerant” when it comes to religious minorities, wrote Reiham Salam in Slate. “They are killing because they are utopians. They want to live in a world that is quite literally cleansed of those who do not share their deranged beliefs, and by killing Yazidis and Christians and members of other religious minorities, they believe that they are serving a noble and just cause.”
Where they have taken control, in Mosul, ISIS has threatened to kill any Christian who doesn’t convert and all — all — had fled the city by mid-July. Reuters reported on August 10 that ISIS had killed at least 500 Yazidis, burying some alive and taking hundreds of women as slaves. And there are many other stories of unspeakable brutality as ISIS imposes its rule on Iraq, including horrifying accounts of beheadings and stonings.
Evil is a metaphysical category so we won’t go there. But these are extremely bad actors, ones with whom we cannot compromise, with whom there is no political solution, whose ideals are totally abhorrent. Obama does not need any other excuses to intervene and we hope that his administration’s commitment to preventing genocide would be enough to have triggered American involvement. The case here is even more clear cut than in Libya in 2011 when Moammar Qaddafi’s threat to cleanse the rebel stronghold of Benghazi of what he called “rats and dogs” spurred the United States into action. In Iraq the Yazidi and Christians are not fighting anyone. They just belong to groups that ISIS considers sub-human. Additonally, the cause of defending Kurdistan is itself a very worthy one since the empowerment of the Kurds is perhaps the only lasting positive effect of the Iraq War, and it should be protected.
But this is also a moment for Obama to clearly reassert what should be an unambigously “organizing principle” of American foreign policy: We will dedicate our military power toward the purpose of protecting people who themselves are powerless and are being targeted and killed only because of their ethnic or religious identities.
As simple as that. No other reason needed.