‘What is its strategic goal?’ Does the president yet have one?
So asks the BBC, among other news outlets and voices in media punditry. It sounds trite, the ‘economy of the media’ in some ways. Because it’s a large, historic, confrontation with evil. But since that has to be carried out by world leaders, beyond the real ‘shoes on the ground’ of the heroic relief organizations who have been there far longer than the media have been paying attention, this is how the story is being reported.
All three of President Barack Obama’s predecessors in the White House were involved in one way or another with military conflicts in Iraq. Now, having set out his stall as the president who would end Washington’s foreign interventions, Mr Obama has a new Iraqi conflict of his own.
True, for now, the US role seems limited and circumscribed. Mr Obama has made it clear that it is up to the Iraqis to do the fighting. There will be no US “boots on the ground”, at least in terms of combat troops.
A further 130-strong US assessment team of military advisers has been despatched to Irbil – in addition to the US trainers and liaison people who are already there. But the aim is to bolster the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to enable them to hold the line against the advancing Islamic State (IS) tide.
The humanitarian crisis afflicting Iraqi minorities – the Christians and the ancient Kurdish Yazidi sect – has formed the ostensible reason for American involvement. Accordingly the US action has been as much humanitarian as military.
Indeed the number of actual air strikes on IS vehicles and positions has been small – enough to send a clear warning that an advance on Irbil would bring much heavier US action.
For now, at least on this front, the US demonstration may have contained the pressure on the Peshmerga, though it has clearly done nothing to put the IS advance into reverse.
Fanned by factionalism
This, then, raises the most fundamental question about Mr Obama’s war: what is its strategic goal?
Is it to try to defeat IS – a group that holds a huge swathe of territory in both Syria and Iraq and one that is already being hailed as the next great strategic threat to the region and beyond ?
If so, then according to Mr Obama’s critics, US action has been both too little and too late.
But there are significant constraints on US action and Mr Obama’s caution may indeed be well advised.
The message coming from Washington is that Iraqis must do the heavy lifting here themselves.
This is complicated, but the president waited a long time to say or do anything, and then only when the Yazidis cried for help from the Sinjar mountaintop did this administration respond. Democratic pundit Kirsten Powers takes issue with that.
It wasn’t until Aug. 5 that the administration acknowledged the crisis in Iraq. It was done in the form of a statement, condemning attacks on religious minorities, by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.
By last Thursday, the largely Christian towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh had fallen to the Islamic State.
Finally, later that night — and two full months after the crisis began — President Obama announced airstrikes in Iraq and for the first time acknowledged that Christians are being driven from the homeland of their faith. But the Christians garnered a passing mention, while the religious minority of Yazidis seems to be what moved the president to act.
An Iraqi Christian leader lamented to me that his people would have to convert to get the administration’s attention.
The Yazidis deserve protection and humanitarian aid, but so do the Christians who number in the hundreds of thousands in Iraq. While the Yazidis received air drops of food and water, nothing has been dropped to the Christians who are homeless and in dire need of food and water. Each day that passes is a matter of life and death.
Powers has been an Obama defender on many issues over the years of his two terms of administration. And though humanitarian crises should never be politicized, they are de facto in today’s world.
To world powers that are engaged (and many are not), political realities determine what else might be done.
The danger is that it will be the IS actions that determine the pace and scale of US intervention.
Mr Obama must also contend with the broader strategic picture.
IS is a transnational organisation in the sense that it is fighting in both Iraq and Syria. Indeed the geographical ambitions of its caliphate may be even broader. It has taken on the Lebanese army in the border region and potentially threatens Jordan too.
The US needs to establish a broader coalition in the region to contain the IS advance.
And in this light it cannot avoid thinking again about Syria.
Syria, after all, provided the launch pad for IS. And the failure to halt its growth there meant that it was able to export its violence across the border into Iraq.
Christian leaders don’t see it that way. The Vatican has been outspoken on the need to meet this catastrophic crisis with international intervention. This document clearly enumerates the consequences.
This Pontifical Council, together with all those engaged in interreligious dialogue, followers of all religions, and all men and women of good will, can only unambiguously denounce and condemn these practices which bring shame on humanity..
No cause, and certainly no religion, can justify such barbarity. This constitutes an extremely serious offense to humanity and to God who is the Creator, as Pope Francis has often reminded us. We cannot forget, however, that Christians and Muslims have lived together – it is true with ups and downs – over the centuries, building a culture of peaceful coexistence and civilization of which they are proud. Moreover, it is on this basis that, in recent years, dialogue between Christians and Muslims has continued and intensified.
The dramatic plight of Christians, Yezidis and other religious communities and ethnic minorities in Iraq requires a clear and courageous stance on the part of religious leaders, especially Muslims, as well as those engaged in interreligious dialogue and all people of good will. All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these crimes and in denouncing the use of religion to justify them. If not, what credibility will religions, their followers and their leaders have? What credibility can the interreligious dialogue that we have patiently pursued over recent years have?
Religious leaders are also called to exercise their influence with the authorities to end these crimes, to punish those who commit them and to reestablish the rule of law throughout the land, ensuring the return home of those who have been displaced. While recalling the need for an ethical management of human societies, these same religious leaders must not fail to stress that the support, funding and arming of terrorism is morally reprehensible.
That said, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is grateful to all those who have already raised their voices to denounce terrorism, especially that which uses religion to justify it.
Let us therefore unite our voices with that of Pope Francis: “May the God of peace stir up in each one of us a genuine desire for dialogue and reconciliation. Violence is never defeated by violence. Violence is defeated by peace. “
The Catholic Church for millennia has taught that war must be a last resort to resolve problems. But it continues to recognize the right of people to defend themselves and, particularly since the pontificate of St. John Paul II, the church has taught that the international community has an obligation to intervene — with force, if necessary — to defend the lives of innocent people at risk of genocide.
“When all other means have been exhausted, to save human beings the international community must act. This can include disarming the aggressor,” said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva.
The duty to defend the innocent explains how Pope Francis can appeal for peace and, at the same time, his representative in Baghdad can welcome President Barack Obama’s decision to begin using military force against Islamic State positions in northeastern Iraq in early August.
Asked about the U.S. military airstrikes, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the Vatican nuncio to Iraq, told Vatican Radio Aug. 11, “This is something that had to be done, otherwise (the Islamic State) could not be stopped.”
The Islamic State, defined as a terrorist group by the international community and by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has captured a wide swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, torturing and massacring civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands of people — particularly Christians, Yezidi and other minorities — from their homes.
Given the brutality of the terrorists, Archbishop Lingua’s comments were in line with papal statements and Catholic social teaching.
CNEWA, one of the many organizations doing the best on the ground relief operation at the local level, everywhere Christian and minority communities are threatened, reports that some Muslim leaders are speaking out against these crimes as well.
Faced with the unrelenting reports about the sufferings of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, even Christians who are friendly toward Muslims can be perplexed and ask, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against these atrocities?” The answer is: Muslims have been speaking out in the strongest terms, condemning the crimes against humanity committed by ISIS (or, as it is increasingly called, IS) and others in the name of Islam.
So, why do we not hear more of this?
The first reason is because Islam is not a structurally centralized religion. Unlike, for example, Catholicism, there is no one person or institution that can speak with authority for all Sunnis or even all Shiites — to say nothing of speaking for all Muslims around the world.
The second reason is that there is a huge number of newspapers in Muslim countries throughout the world. Many, if not most, of these newspapers appear in languages unfamiliar to people in the West. Sometimes, it is not a question of Muslims speaking out, but of others just not hearing. Often, the “not hearing” happens because people do not have access to sources or just do not speak the same language. But the voices are out there. And an important media monitoring group has turned up the volume, to make sure more hear them.
MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), which could never be accused of being apologetic to Islam or Muslims, has just published a “Special Dispatch,” in which it gives a platform to several significant editorials written by Muslims in important Middle Eastern newspapers — condemning the atrocities taking place in Syria and Iraq in no uncertain terms.
I’ve spoken with scholars waiting to hear this, and it’s good news that people of intellect and good will agree on how to live together with civil, respectful and humane treatment of each other.
Meanwhile, Princeton Professor Robert George is not waiting on the sidelines to see what happens. He has issued a plea on behalf of victims of barbarism in Iraq, and launched a campaign to join high level and grassroots voices to speak with the strength of numbers and influence and intent to help those in harm’s way.
Here’s the distinct site to sign on and join your voice to the plea for humanitarian relief.
President Obama was right to order airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL to stop its advance on key cities, as well as to provide humanitarian assistance to people fleeing their assaults. Much more needs to be done, however, and there is no time to waste.
We, the undersigned, are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. We are conservatives, liberals, and moderates. We represent various religious traditions and shades of belief. None of us glorifies war or underestimates the risks entailed by the use of military force. Where non-military means of resolving disputes and protecting human rights are available, we always and strongly favor those means. However, the evidence is overwhelming that such means will not be capable of protecting the victims of the genocide already unfolding at the hands of ISIS/ISIL. That is why Iraq’s Chaldean Patriarch Sako has requested military intervention.
Therefore we call upon the United States and the international community to do everything necessary to empower local forces fighting ISIS/ISIL in Iraq to protect their people. No options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table. We further believe that the United States’ goal must be more comprehensive than simply clamping a short-term lid on the boiling violence that is threatening so many innocents in ISIS/ISIL’s path. Nothing short of the destruction of ISIS/ISIL as a fighting force will provide long-term protection of victims.
We call upon President Obama and the Congress of the United States to expand airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL with a view to eroding its military power, and to provide full air support for Kurdish and other forces fighting against ISIS/ISIL. Further, we endorse the Washington Post’s call for the United States to provide arms, ammunition, and equipment to Kurdish forces, Sunni tribesmen, and others who are currently hampered in their ability to fight ISIS/ISIL by a lack of sophisticated weapons and other resources. The U.S. should also assist with intelligence. We are hopeful that local forces, with adequate support and assistance from the U.S. and the international community, can defeat ISIS/ISIL.
The expansion of humanitarian aid to the displaced and fleeing is also urgent. Local churches and aid agencies are overwhelmed, and we have grave concerns about how these victims of violent religious persecution will be cared for this winter. The U.S. can and should take the lead in providing food, water, medicine, and other essential supplies.
We must be mindful that in addition to stopping the genocide, the U.S. and Europe have very concrete interests in disabling ISIS/ISIL. As the Washington Post has warned:
“The Islamic State forces, which have captured large numbers of U.S.-supplied heavy weapons, threaten not only the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, but also Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. With hundreds of Western recruits, they have the ambition and capability to launch attacks against targets in Europe and the United States.”
It is also worth bearing in mind that our own nation is not without responsibility for the plight of victims of ISIS/ISIL genocide. What is happening to these people now, and the further threats they face, would not be happening but for errors and failures of our nation’s own in Iraq. This can and should be acknowledged by all, despite disagreements we may have among ourselves as to precisely what these errors and failures were, and which political and military leaders are mainly responsible for them. The point is not to point fingers or apportion blame, but to recognize that justice as well as compassion demands that we take the steps necessary to end the ISIL/ISIS campaign of genocide and protect those who are its victims.
So well written. So let it be done.