Two “leading national security organizations” — that’s their own designation, in case you’re wondering — have condemned President Obama’s “return to the battlefield in Iraq.” Their names are a mouthful — the Council for a Livable World and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation — but their statement is worth reading, not for what it says but for what it doesn’t. It offers no hint of how anything other than military intervention was going to save those poor people stuck on a mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, some of them dying of dehydration, some of them already dead and the rest doomed to be murdered.
I chose these particular groups and their news release because while they may not actually be “leading national security organizations,” they are depressingly typical of a certain school of foreign affairs. This is the “tough noogies” school that laments the plight of this or that ethnic group but can’t do anything for them lest the U.S. find itself on a slope slippier than the one the Yazidis were clinging to on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar. Intervene to save the desperate Yazidis and, before you know it, you’re back at war.
Not necessarily. The U.S. did not put boots on the ground in Bosnia or Kosovo and did not do so, either, in Libya. The latter operation is now being considered a fiasco, since Libya has become a failed state. But one failure that’s hardly mentioned anymore was Moammar Gaddafi’s — his threatened massacre of the opposition. Lots of people are alive today because the U.S. and others intervened in Libya.
A massacre was precisely what appeared imminent in Iraq. The Yazidis, an ancient non-Muslim sect, were pronounced untermenschen by the Sunni zealots of the Islamic State. I employ the German term for less-than-human because the Islamic State goons have Nazi mentalities and practices. With a few keystrokes, you can summon pictures of these extremists executing prisoners who made the fatal mistake of being born into the wrong religion. In some of the photos, boys are made to watch the massacre.
Anyone who has been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum has seen similar pictures — the doomed lying in a ditch that they were forced to dig themselves. Here again is the follow-up killer, strutting down the line squeezing off the coup de grace. It is all so repellently familiar, so unacceptably familiar — and so, too, are the calls to avoid the slippery slope, to mind our own business and the sing-songy challenge to people like me: Are you going to intervene everywhere? No. Just where I can. When I can. I favor the possible.
What could we have said to those desperate people on the mountain? We’ve been to Iraq before? We were lied to before? We’d like to help but Congress has to be summoned back in session so that every bloviator in our pathetic national legislature can tweet some inanity, issue a news release and wonder what this effort will do to the budget? In the meantime, people will die of starvation or thirst or a bullet in the back because we didn’t do what we could easily do. This is not who we are. This is not who we should be.
I recognize that these are not easy issues. I recognize further that we are a war-weary nation and that events in the Middle East are so convoluted they redeem the preposterous plots of “Homeland.” But, Lord, how did the moral center of the American left get so isolationist and selfish? How did it manage to cede the moral high ground to the right? Why does it see no difference between a moral obligation to save lives by avoiding murder — not just with humanitarian measures — and a kind of militarist lust for yet more adventure? A pressing humanitarian calamity was facing the region. A reported 500 Yazidis had already been murdered. Something needed to be done. Something could be done.
Obama has finally done the right thing. Up to now, his foreign policy amounted to a vow — expurgated here for the kiddies — not to do stupid stuff. That amounted to not having much of a foreign policy at all. The absence of one — the lack of leadership, of red lines that hum menacingly like a third rail — helped produce a world where the playground monitors disappeared, and the kids took over. To avoid the slippery slope, we were approaching one of tawdry moral indifference. At Mount Sinjar, we acted just in time, saving many lives and our honor as well.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.