There is a certain naiveté inherent in believing dysfunctional foreign nations can be made viable simply through outside military intervention. This was obviously the great lesson of the second Bush administration and the war to remove Saddam Hussein: Iraq was a blood-soaked basket-case under Saddam, yet in hindsight it seems his dictatorship was as much a product of this unlovely status quo as its cause. America’s empathetic rhetoric of liberation proved too generous by half, presuming, as it did, that the violent, petty sectarianism that characterized Saddam’s regime lacked the popular support we’ve since learned it has.
Yet the aftermath of America’s 2003–2011 war has encouraged the rise of another sort of thoughtlessness — the sample-size-of-one generalization that since Iraq went poorly, US military interventions in foreign nations always “cause more problems than they solve,” and should be ipso facto avoided as a result. Such knee-jerkism has been in predictable abundance in the aftermath of President Obama’s decision to bomb select Iraqi targets in response to the growing power of the fundamentalist terror group ISIS.
Ron Paul released a tendentious editorial last week denouncing the Obama strikes as but the latest manifestation of a “failed interventionist policy” in Iraq, in which human suffering is “cynically manipulated by the Obama administration … to provide a reason for the president to attack Iraq again.” Rand the Younger, for his part, warned that opposing ISIS could bring America into closer alliance with decided undesirables. “Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them?” he asked rhetorically the other day, “Assad, the Syrian government.”
On the left, meanwhile, some Congressional Democrats have been equally eager to draw continuity between the eight-year Bush war and Obama’s potentially “open-ended” raids. Even MoveOn.org’s put aside their usual dogmatic partisanship to issue a stern reprimand that Iraq’s current problems are not ones “that more U.S. bombings can solve.”
There are concerns to be raised about the Obama plan, to be sure. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and Americans are right to be wary of the unforeseen consequences of ill-conceived military adventurism. Yet if this latest Middle East intervention is to be skeptically considered in any useful way, critiques should begin by confronting its terms of engagement as articulated by the president himself, as opposed to some totemic notion of what we might cynically expect them to be.
On August 7, President Obama defined his ambitions for military action against ISIS as fundamentally limited, and based around two narrow goals: safeguarding the thousands of American personnel still serving in various official capacities in the cities of Erbil and Baghdad, and protecting various Iraqi religious minorities hiding on Mt. Sinjar from “a potential act of genocide” at the hands of surrounding ISIS fighters.
To date, all bombing raids — nearly 100 now, or about 20 a day — have made good on this promise.
In the days immediately following the President’s August 7 announcement, hundreds of thousands of pounds of food and water were airdropped to Iraqis stranded on Sinjar, while bombing raids around the base of the mountain helped create a “humanitarian corridor” through once-hostile territory to expedite refugee migration. Thousands have been liberated, and though the United Nations says the mountain remains far from empty, America’s first mission has been declared more or less accomplished.
Mandate number two, the protection of American personal, has proven no less focused, even if the precise subject of that focus — providing air support to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces recapture control of the Mosul Dam from ISIS militants — was somewhat unanticipated. Though critics have cried mission creep, the interest in making protection of the dam the primary focus of American safety seems evident enough: destroying the Dam could flood Baghdad within hours, and presumably the safety of the countless US contractors, diplomats, and elite forces stationed there would not be well served by a “15-foot wall of water” crashing into their homes and offices.
Amid the backdrop of these missions, the President has repeated a consistent, self-aware refrain that no, this is not an open-ended war, yes, it is primarily the Iraqis’ responsibility to defend themselves, and yes, he is keenly aware of — and eager to avoid — the irony of being a president who ended one war in Iraq only to start another.
America’s current battle is not about regime change or nation-building, nor is it one that threatens to instigate the emergence of “something worse” by failing to appreciate the stability of the status quo. ISIS literally crucifies heretics, buries children alive, and decapitates journalists with rusty razors. They are quite objectively, as Charles Krauthammer put it, the “worst people on Earth,” yet the current US mission is simply trying to restrain the impact of their evil, rather than extinguish it altogether. Considering how much responsibility Obama bears for the rise of ISIS to begin with — through his blindly political Iraqi troop withdrawal and refusal to back Syria’s moderate rebels when it could have made a difference — it seems the man has earned the benefit of the doubt when he says he’s not serious about using American might to solve big problems.
To dust off cliched complaints about American imperialism in this context is not only to lazily slur a military intervention that is at least trying to be the opposite of Bushism — restrained and humble— but to profess moral apprehension about even the clearest-cut applications of military force to defend American safety and prevent humanitarian disaster from villains of truly unimpeachable evil.
Such arguments bear little principle beyond ostrich-like isolationism — an ugly label, but sometimes the most accurate.