Yet again, the American military is intervening in Iraq. However, this time the intervention is being sold to the public as a humanitarian mission. ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]), an offshoot of al-Qaeda, has expanded its military operations. Having already taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq, they have now encroached into Kurdistan, an area in northern Iraq occupied by ethic Kurds that is largely autonomous.
The reasons for this invasion are not entirely clear, but theories range from a land grab by ISIS, to a possible desire to take over Kurdish oil fields, to a complete wiping out of the Kurdish people and other non-Muslim minorities, including Iraqi Christians and Yazidis. Slate’s Reihan Salam expands on this last theory:
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria steals with the best of them, and I don’t doubt that some of the fighters who’ve attached themselves to its cause are thrill-seeking psychopaths like those you’ll find in any lawless hellhole. On the whole, however, you get the impression that its fighters aren’t killing for fun and profit, and they’re certainly not killing to protect themselves from other crazies. Instead, they are killing because they are utopians. They want to live in a world that is quite literally cleansed of those who do not share their deranged beliefs, and by killing Yazidis and Christians and members of other religious minorities, they believe that they are serving a noble and just cause. The Taliban are awful, but given their willingness to cut deals with the Afghan government and the United States and its allies, they aren’t quite so insane. Even al-Qaida is more tolerant of religious minorities than the lunatics of ISIS. Now, with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen loot, ISIS is on the march, closing in on stranded pockets of women and men they see as pagans and slowly starving them to death. The Kurdish peshmerga, the only Iraqi fighting force capable of holding ISIS at bay, has put up a brave resistance, yet they are starting to buckle.
And, it is this targeting of religious minorities and the buckling of Kurdish forces that has drawn the United States back into the fray. As many as 40,000 Yazidis fled from an ISIS invasion of the town of Sinjar up a nearby mountain. They were surrounded by ISIS troops and cut off from access to food and water.
In response, President Obama announced a humanitarian mission that would drop food and water to the refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar. Good. Any attempt to save people from being slaughtered should be applauded. However, this mission was accompanied by bombing and airstrikes from American planes. While the stated goal was to protect Americans in Iraq and keep ISIS from following the Yazidis up the mountain, I have long believed and argued that peace cannot be achieved through violence. But, the threat that the Yazidis and Kurds face is very real, and they deserve our help, though I do wish we would drop more food and fewer bombs.
President Obama has spoken out on his decision to act in Iraq:
And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That’s a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.
Is that really who we are? I wish it were true. But, the situation in Iraq brings to mind another group of people who are being slaughtered and cut off from food and water by an invading army. Thousands have already died, and even though there have been occasional breaks in the fighting, there are no humanitarian food drops to keep these people from starving. This raises the obvious question: what about Gaza?
The plight of Palestinians in Gaza has been largely forgotten in the wake of the atrocities in Iraq, but the casualties there continue to pile up, and they continue to starve. Are Palestinians not worth saving? Do the crimes of their Hamas leadership mean they all must suffer? Israel may not be quite as guilty on the war crimes scale as ISIS, but they are far from innocent. It is they who have blockaded Gaza over land and sea, encroached on its land, and killed its citizens. Won’t America intervene?
But, we have intervened, on the side of Israel. It is our money that buys their rockets. And, it is our implicit endorsement of their policies that keeps the United Nations from taking action. American hypocrisy in choosing whom to protect and whom to ignore has resulted in well over a thousand deaths, most of them civilians. We have the capacity to do something about it. Isn’t that our responsibility? We don’t even have to drop any bombs. We could just stop selling our bombs to Israel for them to drop.
So, what is it that makes Yazidis worth defending and not Palestinians? Is it just coincidence that in both incidences we have sided against Muslims? Perhaps, though in both cases we have been careful to classify them as extremists. Is it just coincidence that we have economic interests both in Israel and in the oil fields of Kurdistan? Again, perhaps, though there is little doubt that these economic interests color our judgment. But, if economics are driving decision-making, it would be important to remember that food is cheaper than bombs. It would be even more important to remember that all oppressed and hungry people are worth saving, no matter where they live.