The Road To Baghdad Is Paved With Good Intentions

Beinart recognizes the limits of American power to fix the Middle East but insists that our moral obligation to prevent a genocide in Iraq trumps all:

As I have learned myself very painfully, there is an enormous amount the United States cannot do. It cannot solve Iraq’s political problems. It may not even be able to hold Iraq together. It cannot solve the horror in Syria. It cannot defeat the Taliban. It cannot stop Libya from descending into anarchy. But it can save the people in the Sinjar Mountains, both by dropping supplies to keep them alive, and by bombing ISIS so Kurdish forces can retake the areas nearby. And in so doing, it can stop genocide. Thankfully, Obama is doing just that.

Is there a risk that the U.S. will find itself sucked back into a costly and futile effort to impose our will on Iraq? Perhaps, but everything we know about Barack Obama suggests he will resist that fiercely. And so will most Americans. It’s a risk worth taking, in part because in Iraq today, as in Southeast Asia four decades ago, we are culpable. Were it not for our war, and the anarchy it has bred, the Yazidis would likely not be facing imminent death. The reasons Americans want to turn away from Iraq are precisely the reasons we should not.

Greenwald, on the other hand, is pissed off that we’re intervening, stressing that “humanitarian airstrikes” are always and everywhere a contradiction in terms:

For those who ask “what should be done?,” has the hideous aftermath of the NATO intervention in Libya – hailed as a grand success for “humanitarian interventions” – not taught the crucial lessons that (a) bombing for ostensibly “humanitarian” ends virtually never fulfills the claimed goals but rather almost always makes the situation worse; (b) the U.S. military is not designed, and is not deployed, for “humanitarian” purposes?; and (c) the U.S. military is not always capable of “doing something” positive about every humanitarian crisis even if that were really the goal of U.S. officials?

The suffering in Iraq is real, as is the brutality of ISIS, and the desire to fix it is understandable. There may be some ideal world in which a superpower is both able and eager to bomb for humanitarian purposes. But that is not this world. Just note how completely the welfare of Libya was ignored by most intervention advocates the minute the fun, glorious exciting part – “We came, we saw, he died,” chuckled Hillary Clinton – was over.

Along the same lines, Walt argues that it’s time for us to get the hell out of the Middle East for good:

Some will argue that we have a moral responsibility to try to end the obvious suffering in different places, and a strategic imperative to eradicate terrorists and prevent the spread of WMD. These are laudable goals, but if the history of the past twenty years teaches us anything, it is that forceful American interference of this sort just makes these problems worse. The Islamic State wouldn’t exist if the neocons hadn’t led us blindly into Iraq, and Iran would have less reason to contemplate getting nuclear weapons if it hadn’t watched the United States throw its weight around in the region and threaten it directly with regime change.

So instead of acting like a hyperactive juggler dashing between a dozen spinning plates, maybe the best course is to step back even more than we have already. No, I don’t mean isolationism: What I mean is taking seriously the idea of strategic disengagement and putting the whole region further down on America’s list of foreign policy priorities.

But US interests are also at play here. Rather than genocide, Fisher observes that Obama’s real “red line” for ISIS appears to have been its incursion into Kurdistan:

Invading Iraq’s Kurdish region, it turned out, was Obama’s red line for ISIS. There are a few reasons why. The Kurdish region is far stabler, politically, than the rest of Iraq. (Kurds are ethnically distinct from the rest of Iraq, which is largely ethnic Arab; most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.) The Kurdish region, which has been semi-autonomous since the United States invaded in 2003 and has grown more autonomous from Baghdad ever since, also happens to be a much more reliable US ally than is the central Iraqi government. It has a reasonably competent government and military, unlike the central Iraqi government, which is volatile, unstable, deeply corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian.

It’s not hard to see how a cost-benefit calculation might lead the Obama administration to choose defending just Iraqi Kurdistan over defending all of Iraq from ISIS: the Kurdish region is smaller, it already has a competent military on the ground, it is reliably pro-US, and it can probably be protected at much lower risk to the US. With the rest of Iraq in chaos, the Kurdish region is also America’s last reliable base in the country, so if Erbil falls to ISIS then the US could effectively be out altogether.

And Kenneth Pollack doesn’t buy the arguments against humanitarian intervention:

At least according to the accounts we have received so far, the humanitarian need seems clear and pressing. The United States has the lift capacity to air drop humanitarian supplies and the military capacity to provide at least some degree of air support to the refugees against attack by ISIS fighters. That said, without a corresponding ground force, air power alone may not be enough to prevent a determined assault by ISIS. That is not an argument in favor of deploying ground troops, but neither should it be an argument against employing air power alone. Just because we are not certain to save them does not mean we should not try at all.

Any humanitarian intervention always begs the question, why intervene to help this group and not some other? There are vast numbers of people suffering in the world, so this is always going to be a question that some will ask. My response is that there are some situations where the suffering is acute, danger is imminent, and where there is something that the U.S. can do about it. Those are the cases where they U.S. should unquestionably act, and those criteria greatly diminish the number of eligible cases. I think the immediate situation of the Yazidi and other northern Iraqi minorities are clearly part of that set of cases. Moreover, I think it absurd to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by academic debates over which groups are most deserving of American assistance when there is a clear and pressing humanitarian need that we could be addressing.

Still, it’s not clear that Obama has a strategic plan here:

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd he is “dismayed” by President Obama’s strategy in Iraq, and that it demonstrates “muddled thinking.”

“If you’re going to protect refugees, 50,000 people without water and food, you don’t do two F/A-18 strikes on an artillery unit somewhere in the vicinity,” McCaffrey insisted, criticizing Obama’s decision to authorize “pinprick strikes” against ISIL in the Sinjar Mountains, where tens of thousands of Yazidis are trapped as they flee from ISIL terrorists. “It looks to me as if a lot of this is internal U.S. politics to show we’re doing something,” McCaffrey said.