Iraq and Gaza – Humanitarianism and Hypocrisy

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.

Late Reaction on the End of the War in Iraq

So, I know I’m more than a few days late, but just in case you haven’t heard, the War in Iraq is officially over.  After nine years, thousands of dead American soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, we have finally reached the end of one of the ugliest chapters of American history.  Of course, it’s not really over.  Thousands of American contractors still remain in Iraq, but that’s a topic for another post.

The details of the war, and the fact that we shouldn’t have even been fighting it in the first place have been gone over many times before, so I won’t repeat those arguments here.  Instead, I wanted to focus on the aftermath of what became a terribly unpopular war, and the attempts to spin the results into something a bit more palatable for the American people so that they can wash the taste of unprovoked slaughter out of their mouths.

English: Iraqi-American, Samir, 34, pinning de...

Yes, we got Saddam Hussein. But, was it worth it?

As President Obama welcomed home the troops (after desperately trying and failing to extend the deadline for their withdrawal), the natural question to ask now that the war has been fought is whether or not it was worth it.  What, if anything, was actually achieved through our invasion of Iraq?  Yes, we caught Saddam Hussein, and yes, he was tried, convicted, and executed by the people of Iraq.  But, does that justify the huge number of casualties and mind-boggling amount of money spent?  I don’t think so.  I certainly understand that Americans want to believe that they won this war, and that they want to feel like they did some good, but the simple fact is that they didn’t.  So, was it worth it?

Salon.com posted an article this week posing this very question.  Written by Glenn Greenwald, it is a response to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his claims that he thinks “the price has been worth it, to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world.”  Greenwald raises three very important questions, each of which deserves further examination.

Greenwald asks:

If the attack on Iraq was “worth it” — meaning the benefits outweighed the costs — then doesn’t that mean that Democrats (including President Obama) owe George Bush, Dick Cheney and friends a sincere apology for all those attacks they voiced over the years about the war? How can the Iraq War simultaneously have been a “stupid war” (President Obama’s 2002 description) and one where “the price has been worth it” (Panetta)?

When George Bush first proposed a war in Iraq, it was based on the allegedly imminent threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Given this threat, many on the Left were supportive of the initial invasion.  But, when the allegation of WMDs was later debunked, public opinion (at least on the Left) shifted, and opposition to the war grew.  But, with claims that the war was “worth it,” Democrats could now find themselves on the wrong side of Panetta’s spin if they don’t show their support.  By continuing to be critical of a war that is being declared to have been worth all the lives that were lost fighting it, they risk alienating their constituents.  The fact is, Americans are emotionally fragile people.  They need to be constantly told that they are noble, fighting the good fight, and bringing democracy and freedom to the oppressed people of the world.  And, more importantly, they need to believe that their sons and daughters died for something worthwhile.  That is why Panetta is trying to spin an ugly unjust war into something that it wasn’t.  But, in order for that to work, the rest of the Left needs to get on board.  So, is it more important to be right, and to continue to criticize the decisions of the Bush administration (and to a lesser extent, the Obama administration), or to put the entire thing behind us in a way that allows common Americans to feel good about the atrocities that were committed?  Personally, I believe that Americans are strong enough to be told the truth.  Panetta disagrees.

The article continues:

Consider how often U.S. officials announce to the Muslim world, either in essence or, as here, explicitly: yes, our actions extinguished the lives of hundreds of thousands of your innocent men, women and children, but we think it’s worth it. What is the inevitable outcome of that message being sent over and over?

American leadership has continually dodged accusations of imperialism, ignoring their selfish motivations for wars like the one in Iraq and choosing instead to say that they are fought on behalf of people under the thumb of evil dictators like Saddam Hussein.  But, in this case, as Greenwald notes, we are acknowledging the huge number of innocents that were killed in Iraq, and we are saying that it was justified.  Whatever state Iraq may be in now–devastated and destroyed, but under new leadership–Americans are saying that it was worth the sacrifice of so many lives.  Leaders on the Right have long refused to accept that militant Muslims don’t hate us for our freedom, but that they instead hate us for having our military in their countries uninvited (and for killing so many of their innocent countrymen, women, and children).  By denying our imperialist tendencies and attempting to justify almost a decade of war and slaughter, we are at risk of enraging the very people we were allegedly liberating.  And, by claiming righteousness and refusing to accept blame, that risk grows exponentially.  It’s tragically ironic that an invasion that had tenuous (but false) ties to the so-called War on Terror will have the likely outcome of greater resentment towards America and its policies, and an increase in militant potential terrorists.  By attempting to sooth delicate American sensibilities and to help them sleep at night, we will likely add to our list of enemies.

Greenwald then asks his third question, which may be the most important question of all:

If the highest levels of the U.S. government believe the Iraq War was “worth it,” then doesn’t it stand to reason that more of the same should be done?

Simply put, if this war was justified, why don’t we fight more wars like it?  The thought of this terrifies me, and likely terrifies the rest of the world even more.  If such a high price for so small a result in Iraq is “worth it,” what isn’t?  What won’t we go to war for?  What won’t we slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent people for?  Where is the line that we won’t cross in attempting to justify a senseless war, or does such a line even exist?