Listening To The President

Amid the impending flurry of opinions, ideas, regrets, conclusions and arguments that you will greet today, it’s well worth eight minutes of our time simply to listen to what president Obama said last night about the US intervention in Kurdistan yesterday. Here’s what he obviously wants in descending order of importance: security for US personnel in Erbil; no genocide of the Yazidis; and a functional, multi-sectarian coalition government in Baghdad. The first two are achievable in the short term; the last is subject to the profound vicissitudes of the broken state of “Iraq”. Which is to say: we can see no long term clearly right now.

Like most decisions that come down to the president alone, this is a very, very tough one. The reasons to resist being pulled back into any conflict in Iraq are too obvious and manifold to state. But let me note one massive irony: one reason why ISIS appears to have made so much progress is because they are armed with American military equipment, abandoned by the Iraqi army. And the only reason ISIS exists at all in Iraq – and al Qaeda before them – is that the United States so thoroughly broke that country from 2003 on. So the proximate reasons for this American intervention are the unintended consequences of previous American interventions. You can see how global hegemony eventually provides endless reasons for its own perpetuation – and why some of us want to restrain and temper its ambitions.

Another obvious conclusion: the speech last night was very similar to the reasoning behind the ill-fated rescue of Misrata in the Libyan uprising. Again: an allegedly imminent slaughter of civilians. Again: the need to act expeditiously because of fast-moving events on the ground. And we saw how that intervention ended  – in chaos and disorder that has only enabled more slaughter and unrest. If we thought Libya had persuaded Obama that he should not act when he can to save thousands of innocent civilians threatened by murderous religious fanatics, then we misjudged his moral core.

Do I reject that moral core? Of course not. I would not want even the toughest realist in the White House to be unmoved by a possibly imminent mass execution of civilians. And this is not merely a possible mass execution. It’s attempted genocide. That distinction matters to me, and should matter to America. ISIS has now slaughtered countless innocents, as has the government of Assad in Syria. But the possible genocidal attempt to wipe out the entire, ancient Yazidi population makes this more than yet another grotesque incident in someone else’s civil war. Non-interventionism meets its toughest test when it comes to atrocities like these.

Then there is the issue of the Kurds, a feisty, stateless people whose sanity stands in stark contrast to some of their neighbors. They too have endured genocidal attacks in the past  – from Saddam Hussein. They have been staunch American allies for decades and critical to what’s left of any decent future in that part of the world. They are not active participants in the Sunni-Shiite Arab Iraq-Syria civil war. They have played a largely defensive game, with some opportunistic land grabs, while developing their own region in a manner Baghdad seems incapable of more broadly. If Erbil were to fall for lack of ammunition in the short term – because they are being targeted by US-made military equipment – then equalizing that imbalance in the short term seems to the least we can do.

Nonetheless, I remain troubled by this – as I think the president is as well.

The danger of getting sucked into the Iraqi vortex is great. What if air-strikes are not enough? What if ISIS manages to invade Kurdistan – or does unspeakable damage to the dam now under its control? We are talking about a Jihadist force born of a fanatical fusion of a depraved version of Islam with brutality and violence of unlimited scope. What we are now signaling, in other words, is that there are limits to what the United States will tolerate with respect to ISIS’ dominance and power projection. That means we could find ourselves forced to intervene again and again on these lines and for these reasons. Only the president’s fortitude and restraint – or willingness to retreat from the goals he has just set out – can save us. At that point, if the immediate need to save the Yazidis and Kurdistan is behind us, it is absolutely imperative that any further military action be authorized by the Congress. An expeditious act of executive authority is one thing. Another risk of war is something else entirely. And such a decision should not be a president’s anyway. It should be a decision by the American people, through their elected representatives.

My main fear of the intervention is that it might convey to Iraq’s terrible leadership that the US once again will do their hard work for them – and thereby relieve them of the task of constructing a new government, capable of rallying Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to restrain ISIS. Perhaps the danger is now so great the dysfunction in Baghdad could break – and with indirect American support, a new and more widely legitimate Iraqi government can begin to roll back or at least cauterize the Jihadist onslaught. That’s the optimistic scenario.

But when has an optimistic scenario ever been borne out in Iraq? That is the question. As Barry Ritholtz put it today:

Each time I think I have finally put George W. Bush’s misadventures out of my mind, something comes about to remind us how utterly bereft of reason or intelligence the decision to invade Iraq was. It is likely to haunt the U.S. even longer than the disastrous Vietnam War.