I’m no pacifist. Those ISIS fuckers can’t die fast enough. The problem is how it could get done, and at what cost to innocent people.
It feels a bit like a replay of the Kosovo affair. The Clinton Administration cried genocide, and I supported intervention. Not that my support mattered. For the sake of Serb vilification, depredations of the Bosnians and Croatians were downplayed. I was critical of the intervention being confined to aerial bombardment, which in some cases deliberately entailed civilian casualties. The U.S. accepted innocent Serbian casualties for the sake of precluding any American ones that would have resulted from “boots on the ground.” Some moral foreign policy. Afterwards I felt bamboozled. There was no genocide; there were atrocities from both sides. The new Kosovo statelet does not impress as an island of freedom.
ISIS looks like a clearer case. It’s clearly a murderous outfit with no redeeming qualities (Warning, nasty pictures here). Religious/ethnic minorities deserve protection, and the nascent Kurdish state is worth defending, or at least arming to the teeth. Unfortunately the cool weapons in ISIS hands are the result of our arming the Iraqi joke-army. Once you give weapons away it’s hard to get them back. ISIS may not be easy to expunge. They will use civilians as human shields. But if they try to advance in open ground, they are vulnerable to U.S. air power.
The U.S. motives here should not be taken for granted as wise or disinterested. The continuing policy of trying to preserve a unitary Iraq now looks idiotic. Joe Biden, who foresaw the need for partition, looks pretty good. The need to protect our consulate is obvious. I wager that will require “boots on the ground.” I have no idea how it would be possible to protect others without another invasion. The Kurds may be able to defend their region. The fate of others trapped in the savage new “caliphate” is a different matter. A defense of the Administration by Peter Galbraith is here. I might add that PG has business interests in Kurdistan. Other former U.S. foreign policy officials have business interests now in Kosovo. And so it goes. Here’s a good piece by Matt Yglesias explaining Administration policy. As far as I know he doesn’t own any oil futures.
I got an email from the Code Pinkies, whom I like. Their recommendation is the same as the White House — bring the different parties in Iraq together with diplomacy. They’ve been sniffing the peonies too hard. The Iraqi government is incompetent. Who would want to block with them?
There are other mass atrocities in progress that also beg for attention. If we can’t fix them all, can we fix any? I’d say yes, when it’s easy and there is less prospect of entanglement with conflicting U.S. geopolitical machinations. Of course the latter cases are unlikely to command U.S. government interest. John Judis notes the salience of oil in this affair. I don’t think he is saying an intervention is unjustified for that reason.
I can’t get too angry about blowin’ up these particular folks, though it pays to remember that from tens of thousands of feet up, it’s easy to blow up the wrong folks. The U.S. government seems to do it all the time.
Let me pick up the main arguments of Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Here is an interview with her, here is an article she wrote. Phyllis is always worth consulting on this kind of stuff, and IPS is one of my fave organizations.
1. The slippery slope. PB fears the initiation of bombing will lead to a return of U.S. troops to Iraq and a big new war. This is certainly possible but I think very unlikely. There is too much sentiment against it. Nor is there any money for it. More likely if the bombing is unsuccessful, the end result will be U.S. declarations of victory-and-withdrawal and ongoing chaos in the region. Dangerous, but chaos is the outlook in any case.
2. Iraq as aircraft carrier. PB suggests Iraq has key significance as a location, in addition to its oil resources, in terms of afffording access to the U.S. military to other parts of the world. I see no conceivable use for any such access, nor any exclusivity to it.
3. The legal and hypocrisy arguments are irrelevant. There is no law and there is no honor in geopolitics. It’s a jungle out there.
4. That U.S. personnel on the ground can be easily evacuated is irrelevant. There is no reason the U.S. should let itself be chased out of Erbil by the likes of ISIS. And there are still the folks left behind.
5. Phyllis says ISIS could be undercut by a Sunni-friendly unity government in Iraq. This position is shared by the White House and Code Pink. I am skeptical. At the very least, that would take some time. We’ll probably have some kind of demonstration of the truth of this in any case. In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis remains.
Do we need to say a word about the Foxies? I saw a bit of a panel including George Will, Laura Ingraham, and Ron Fournier, among others. Their game is all about bemoaning how awful things are and why doesn’t Obama do more. Exactly what ‘more’ means is never elaborated. These are not serious people. I also caught remarks from John McCain. He decried the Administration’s lack of strategy. I don’t think they have a strategy either. McCain’s strategy is to turn the whole region into a paradise of democracy by massive use of force. So he’s still nuts. (There is some talk that the anti-Assad militants that Crazy John met with in Syria were actually ISIS folks, or would become such, which points up the futility of trying to intervene in the Syrian/Iraqi civil war on the ground.)
I don’t have a morally satisfactory resolution. Innocent people are under threat and the only conceivable instrument of their salvation is deeply flawed. It (the U.S. government) may be exploiting the human rights cause for ulterior motives and therefore not serve well the ostensible objective. It does that all the time.
Until we have some kind of social movement with a different strategic vision of foreign policy, we’re reduced to coping with the mixed motives of the State in the face of urgent human distress. I am anti-imperialist. I do not think that precludes acquiescence to some kind of U.S. intervention. There are some things worse than imperialism.