Our theories, like the weather,
Veer round completely every day,
And all that we can always say
Is: true democracy begins
With free confessions of our sins.
— W. H. Auden, quoted in Richard Holbrooke’s To End a War.
There is a principle of common law that holds that while there is no duty to intervene to protect another person in peril, once one does undertake a rescue, it is incumbent on the intervening party to take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to ensure the safety of the endangered person. There is, moreover, an affirmative duty to intervene when one is actually responsible for the source of the peril. These principles spring to mind often in view of the tragedy now unfolding in Iraq.
As helpless Yazidis and Christians flee before the ISIS onslaught in Nineveh and Kurdistan, dying of thirst or beheading, and as Kurds plead for Western military support to stave off what is perhaps the gravest threat to civilization to emerge in the Middle East in centuries, America has at last taken military action. As Tim Stanley, a non-interventionist, persuasively argued here: “Only a cruel amnesiac would look at what is happening to Iraq’s religious minorities and say, ‘This has nothing to do with us.’ This has everything to do with us.”
It should be no surprise that President Obama finds himself once more unable to disengage from the Middle East. America’s conduct has led directly to the harmful consequences endured by millions of helpless people in the region. The duties of individuals are not always a perfect analogy to those of the nation-state, but in this instance they are certainly instructive. America, like the clumsy rescuer, has obligations to those whom it has imperiled.
In addition to being morally just, it is in the long-term prudential self-interests of the U.S. to use military force in Iraq to inhibit the advance of the Islamic State. There can be no doubt that the existence — and expansion — of this would-be caliphate is contrary to the long-term interests of the United States. Americans should applaud military action in northern Iraq, however belated, as do those in the region who share America’s values.
While it is tempting to long for the decisiveness of the previous administration, it ought to be remembered that such action might never have been necessary had the previous administration acted with more of Obama’s deliberateness. The crusade for democracy was an abysmal failure. (No, one need not await the judgment of history: The verdict is in.) America’s humiliating Wilsonian foray into nation-building — particularly where nation-states simply do not exist in any meaningful way — has proven a distraction, which the Islamist militants have used to exceed even the wildest ambitions of Osama bin Laden. And the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are not going away. But America has quietly grown to appreciate the cost of war, everywhere except inside the Beltway (whose indefatigable interventionists are apparently oblivious to the fact that it is no longer 2002). Protracted war in the Middle East has contributed to a natural skepticism about military intervention in the Middle East, as witnessed by last September’s popular resistance to intervention in Syria — resistance that, more generally, appears resoundingly prudent in light of the establishment of the Islamist caliphate in the Fertile Crescent. But this case is exceptional.
The action undertaken in recent days by the Obama administration is of a very different nature and far more sensible than “planting the seeds of democracy” in the Middle East. It has met with much criticism from non-interventionists, which is expected (and warranted) after so many failed military actions in the Middle East. However, the situation has changed radically — not just in the last twelve years, but in the last two months. There are now three evolving entities in Mesopotamia competing for statehood: the Islamic State, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the Iraqi government. America clings to the myth of Iraq-as-nation-state, in denial of the existence of the Islamic State’s caliphate — an increasingly undeniable reality. The will to militarily overthrow the Islamic State unfortunately does not exist among the peoples of the region. If ever the United Nations had an interest in containing a threat, this is it.
If the Islamic State is not stopped, it will continue to see supporters flock to its cause, much as they have, from London to Lahore. If the Islamic State is not stopped, the systematic eradication of entire communities will continue, which, incidentally, surpasses the “crimes against humanity” threshold. Beyond moral grounds, these communities — Christian, Yazidi, Kurd — tend to share American values. (The Kurds, in particular, have elections, a relatively free press, civil society, and a strong sense of nationhood.) It is in America’s interests that they should remain there, providing a de-radicalizing pluralism that is vital to the region.
The violent extremism that flourishes in Syria and Iraq will have consequences not only across the region (the Islamic State now threatens Lebanon) but also for Western nations for years and probably decades to come. This is not therefore an issue on which America ought to act unilaterally. Rather, the president ought to encourage an international effort to, at long last, bring the conflicts in Syria and Iraq to a conclusion — even if it means the dissolution of those nation-states. There is, fortunately, a model for intervention other than the 2003 Iraq War, one that arose during the dissolution of another Wilsonian-era fiction: Yugoslavia.
The conflict in Yugoslavia (1991–95), which featured ethnic cleansing reminiscent of the religious cleansing in Iraq and Syria today, concluded with direct military intervention by a multinational force (including armed forces as diverse as those of Russia and Pakistan). It saw the breakup not only of Yugoslavia but the tri-section of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is perhaps the greatest foreign-policy achievement of Bill Clinton’s presidency, though it was the late Richard Holbrooke whose force of will saw the matter through. As Holbrooke noted of the conflict, America’s first policy was to proclaim support for “something that no longer existed” — Yugoslavia.
There was not merely a moral imperative (there to protect Muslims from Christians); to abandon Bosnia-Herzegovina to its own savagery would have been destabilizing for Europe and thus inimical to the interests of the United States and the international community at large. As I argued here last year, the intervention in the former Yugoslavia may serve as a compelling model today for Syria and now perhaps Iraq, but this would call for a willingness to see Iraq and Syria dissolved. For the moment, America clings, as it did at the outset of war in Yugoslavia, to nations that no longer exist.
President Obama deserves credit for this decision and bipartisan support. The next step is signing the legislation in Congress spearheaded by representatives Vargas, Eshoo, and Fortenberry, among others. It is a step toward the deployment of an international (i.e., United Nations) protection force, which would allow for the delivery of emergency humanitarian relief and would check the advancement of the Islamic State. All these are steps toward responsibly and honorably concluding what America so imprudently began more than a decade ago.
— Andrew G. Doran writes about U.S. foreign policy and human-rights issues, with a particular focus on the Middle East. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.