A couple of months ago, I said that it was hard to know the right course for the US in dealing with developments in Iraq, and that President Obama’s cautious approach was “about right.” Circumstances have changed, but my basic assessment of US policy hasn’t: President Obama made a difficult but correct call in ordering US air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
There is always a tendency to demonize one’s enemies, but I don’t think there are adjectives that overstate the awfulness of the ISIL, who are genocidally inclined religious fanatics. The intervention ordered by the president serves the humanitarian objective of preventing an incipient mass slaughter of the minority Yazidis as well as the political objective of forestalling an ISIL takeover of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. Both objectives are worthwhile. The justification for the humanitarian intervention is obvious. Hardly less obvious, to me, is the importance of keeping ISIL from taking over Erbil, which would be a tremendous milestone toward ISIL’s goal of establishing a mini-caliphate in the Middle East. Such a regime would very likely serve as a safe haven and base of operations for jihadists the world over.
A number of people I respect, like political scientist Stephen Walt, historian Juan Cole, blogger Andrew Sullivan, and lefty foreign policy analyst Phyllis Bennis, have expressed various degrees of uneasiness if not outright opposition to this US intervention. While nobody is objecting to humanitarian aid to the Yazidis, the diffidence about the military intervention ranges from concerns about a slippery slope—once we’re in, how do we stop from getting in too far?—to the generalized sense that US intervention in Iraq cannot be effective to a cynicism about the very idea that US military power could serve humanitarian ends.
I’m certainly mindful of the disgraceful history of US intervention in Iraq, and I share the concern about a slippery slope, but none of the commentators that I cited above, nor any other of the critics of intervention I’ve seen, has explicitly dealt with the question: can we really be indifferent to an ISIL capture of Erbil? I just don’t think we can, which is why I think President Obama’s course thus far is correct. (According to news reports, the US air strikes may already have enabled the Kurds to take back a couple of towns from ISIL.) The administration is correct, too, in pushing for a more inclusive government in Baghdad that can claim the political legitimacy to fight ISIL on behalf of the great majority of Iraqis. I find myself in rare agreement with Ross Douthat, who cogently explains why this intervention makes more sense than recent actual and proposed interventions in Libya, Syria and Iraq itself.
Now, it is undoubtedly true, as Steve Coll points out, that US interest in saving Erbil has a great deal to do with the fact that that city is drenched in oil wealth. But the presence of mercenary motives for US policy doesn’t detract from the validity of the anti-ISIL objective.
As for the slippery slope problem, there’s no easy answer. I’m fairly confident that anti-interventionist sentiment in the US is sufficiently strong so that a renewed commitment of ground troops to Iraq would be politically impossible. I would like to see Congress assert itself and put this operation on a short leash. Yes, there is an undeniable risk of escalation temptations if things go very badly. That risk has to be weighed against the immediate and ugly prospect of a decisive ISIL military victory.
P.S. There is one important Democratic politician who isn’t much impressed by anti-interventionist sentiment in our country. More on that in my next post.