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Intervention as Duty
The U.S. is obliged to take action in Iraq, to finish what we started.

Poised to Strike: An F/A-18 Hornet aboard USS George H.W. Bush (U.S. Navy)

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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.

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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.


USS George H.W. Bush
JUNE, 2014: As the security situation in Iraq continues to degrade, the Pentagon has moved the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to the Persian Gulf, putting it in a position to intervene if needed. Here’s a look at the firepower aboard George H.W. Bush.
The George H.W. Bush was recently stationed in the North Arabian Sea, and her movement into the Persian Gulf signals the seriousness of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Pictured, an F/A-18 Super Hornet lands on George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Joshua Card)
The George H.W. Bush is being joined by the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun (pictured) and the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea. Both ships bring a potent Tomahawk cruise missile strike capability. Pictured, George H.W. Bush with Truxtun (left) and Philippine Sea during a previous deployment.
Ahe amphibious dock ship USS Mesa Verde has recently arrived in the region as well, adding a rapidly deployable Marine Corps contingent to the task force.
THE “AVENGER”: Commissioned in 2009 and first deployed in 2011, the George H.W. Bush is the last of the Nimitz-class super carriers. As the flagship of the Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 2, she commands a flotilla of other surface ships in addition to her air arsenal.
The ship takes her name from the 41st president, who served as a naval aviator during WWII, where he was shot down during a mission in the Pacific theater. Pictured, Bush visits his namesake ship during training exercises.
Powered by two nuclear reactors, George H.W. Bush’s top speed exceeds 30 knots. A typical crew complement consists of around 6,000 officers, sailors and Marines.
Everything about the Bush is super-sized, including the things you can’t see. Beneath the waves, the Bush is propelled by four 21-foot wide propellers, each weighing 30 tons, and two rudders each weighing 50 tons.
George H.W. Bush’s main offensive punch come from the four strike fighter squadrons of Carrier Air Wing Eight, accounting for 40 to 50 combat aircraft on board. Pictured, two F/A-18 Hornets with Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-87 (the “Golden Warriors”) above George H.W. Bush.
Strike fighter squadrons VFA-15 (the “Valions”) and VFA-87 (the “Golden Warriors”) fly the F/A-18C/A Hornet. Pictured, an F/A-18C Hornet with VFA-15 launches from the flight deck. (Photo: Seaman Kevin J. Steinberg)
Strike fighter squadrons VFA-31 (the “Tomcatters”) and VFA-213 (the “Black Lions”) fly the larger F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Pictured, an F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 leaps into the air. (Photo: Petty Officer Second Class Gregory N. Juday)
George H.W. Bush also carries four EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes and E-2C Hawkeye early-warning and combat-control aircraft, along with other support and transport squadrons. Pictured, sailors prep an EA-6B Prowler aircraft with Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-129 for launch. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Timothy Walter)
An E-2C Hawkeye with Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 120 lands aboard George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Seaman Kevin J. Steinberg)
An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator completed an autonomous arrested landing on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush in July, 2013, marking a major milestone in the development of the new jet-powered Navy drone. (Photo: Alan Radecki for Northrop Grumman)
FLIGHT OPERATIONS: Officers and crew on the bridge of USS George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Timothy Walter)
An F/A-18E Super Hornet with VFA-31 lands aboard George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens).
An F/A-18C Hornet with VFA-15 approaches the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush for a landing behind an F/A-18 Hornet with VFA-87 undergoing maintenance. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Hall)
An F/18-A Hornet with VFA-87 (the “Golden Warriors”) lands on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Robert Burck)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 (the “Black Lions”) approaches for a landing on George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Timothy Walter)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 lands on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Kevin J. Steinberg)
Captain Daniel Dwyer, deputy commander of Carrier Air Wing 8, makes his 1,000th carrier landing as he lands aboard George H.W. Bush in an F/A-18A+ Hornet with VFA-87 in 2011. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Billy Ho)
Lieutenant Commander Timothy Myers with VFA-31 gives a thumbs-up after landing his F/A-18E Super Hornet aboard George H.W. Bush in 2010. (Photo: Daniel Moore)
ON THE FLIGHT DECK: A shooter signals an F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 to launch on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Daniel Moore)
An air department sailor directs an F/A-18C Hornet assigned to VFA-15 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Brent Thacker)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet with Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-213 (the “Black Lions”) launches from the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens)
A sailor assigned to the air department of George H.W. Bush guides an F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 to a catapult. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Hall)
Sailors prepare to launch an F/A-18C Hornet with VFA-15 aboard George H.W. Bush. The painting on this Hornet identifies it as a “CAG bird” flown by the air group’s commanding officer. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Kasey Krall)
An air department sailor directs an F/A-18E Super Hornet with VFA-31 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Daniel Moore)
Sailors assigned to VFA-87 (the “Golden Warriors”) attach ordnance to an F/A-18A Hornet on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Joshua Card)
Sailors with VFA-31 (the “Tomcatters”) load ordnance onto an F/A-18E Super Hornet aboard George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens)
Aviation Ordnanceman Airman August Moss inspects training ordnance aboard George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Gregory Wilhelmi)
Sailors move an aircraft fuel tank on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens)
Sailors direct an EA-6B Prowler with VAQ-134 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Lieutenant Juan Guerra)
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Second Class Steven Lily directs an MH-53E Sea Dragon on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Kevin J. Steinberg)
Sailors board an MV-22 Osprey from the Marine Tiltrotor Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron VMX-22 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Kevin J. Steinberg)
Sailors transit the flight deck on George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Kevin J. Steinberg)
An F/A-18 Super Hornet comes to a stop on the arresting wire on the fligh deck of George H.W. Bush. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens/Released)
Sailors conduct flight operations aboard George H.W. Bush. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens/Released)
Flight deck personnel direct an F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. Bush. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Hall)
An F/A-18C Hornet with VFA-15 takes off from the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Lieutenant Juan Guerra)
An F/A-18 Super Hornet with VFA-213 stands ready on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Joshua K. Horton)
Updated: Aug. 15, 2014

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