One of the talking points coming out of Tom Friedman’s Obama interview is this idea of only intervening in the Middle East when the parties accept a “no victors, no vanquished” attitude. It’s not clear to me this is fully Obama’s argument so much as it is Friedman’s attempt to put a Friedmanesque buzzphrase around it. Friedman writes:
At the end of the day, the president mused, the biggest threat to America — the only force that can really weaken us — is us. We have so many things going for us right now as a country — from new energy resources to innovation to a growing economy — but, he said, we will never realize our full potential unless our two parties adopt the same outlook that we’re asking of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or Israelis and Palestinians: No victor, no vanquished and work together.
And again Friedman writes:
Obama made clear that he is only going to involve America more deeply in places like the Middle East to the extent that the different communities there agree to an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished. The United States is not going to be the air force of Iraqi Shiites or any other faction. Despite Western sanctions, he cautioned, President Vladimir Putin of Russia “could invade” Ukraine at any time, and, if he does, “trying to find our way back to a cooperative functioning relationship with Russia during the remainder of my term will be much more difficult.” Intervening in Libya to prevent a massacre was the right thing to do, Obama argued, but doing it without sufficient follow-up on the ground to manage Libya’s transition to more democratic politics is probably his biggest foreign policy regret.
But Friedman also notes:
The only states doing well, like Tunisia, I’ve argued, have done so because their factions adopted the principle of no victor, no vanquished. Once they did, they didn’t need outside help.
Well, yes. Exactly. I wish Friedman had taken a moment from his vociferous head-nodding marathon to think this point through. If you say that you’re only going to intervene in peaceful places, then you’re really saying you won’t intervene because if those places are peaceful there’s no need to intervene. It’s a bit like a fireman saying, “We’re only going into buildings where the fire has burned out.” Now, I know that people understandably fed-up with the Middle East might think that’s a good policy. We can debate that another time (we can also debate the insane comparison of our domestic partisan squabbles to the factional fissures of the Middle East). But I am at a loss as to what this No Victor/No Vanquished thing means in regard to the fanatics crucifying and beheading their way across the Middle East.
Fortunately, this No Victor/No Vanquished formulation isn’t something Obama explicitly applies to ISIS. He’s not talking about compromising with ISIS. Rather, he wants the threat of ISIS to force the Iraqi government to get its act together. I wish all parties nothing but luck with that.
The folks at MoveOn.org seem a bit more confused on this point. In their statement, they say that “The civil war in Iraq can only be resolved, and peace and stability can only be achieved, through an Iraqi-led political solution. As President Obama has said before, there is no viable military solution to this crisis.”
Which crisis are they talking about? Does the self-styled ”Islamic State” — which aims to have a caliphate flag flying over the White House — really fit neatly into the term “Iraqi civil war”? And what if the political solution for ISIS is to join a coalition government in Baghdad for the five or ten minutes it needs to overthrow the government? I’m sure ISIS could impose “peace” on Iraq, given the chance, much the same way Lenin and Stalin imposed “peace” on the Soviet Union.
Compromise is wonderful, when the parties doing the compromising are basically decent. Compromising with objectively evil parties isn’t laudatory, it’s appeasement. I have no idea how to fix Iraq at this point or even if it is fixable. But I am pretty certain that ISIS isn’t interested in compromising. People who bury women and children alive usually aren’t the “let’s take half a loaf” types.
I truly hope the Obama administration is successful in its effort to get the Iraqis to get their act together. If the Iraqis themselves can be the victors, that’s great for everybody. But I also hope that the people in charge understand that ultimately ISIS needs to be vanquished because they will never abandon their ambitions for victory.