Summer of Genocide (Blake Rutherford on Politics)

(Editor's Note: This is an opinion column.)

It was March 16, 2003. President George W. Bush appeared with the leaders of the United Kingdom and Spain and began to lay a foundation for war in Iraq. In his remarks, Bush said, “The dictator of Iraq and his weapons of mass destruction are a threat to the security of free nations. He is a danger to his neighbors. He's a sponsor of terrorism. He's an obstacle to progress in the Middle East. For decades he has been the cruel, cruel oppressor of the Iraq people.”

That same day inspectors from the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which had been searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction without success, left the country, their work unfinished. After efforts to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing an armed response in Iraq failed, on March 19, Bush, seated behind a desk in the Oval Office, announced a plan for war by saying, “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.”

Seventy-two percent of Americans supported that decision and, as a result, Afghanistan and Iraq became the center of the political world. However, in the time since now and then, it became apparent that Bush’s articulation regarding the presence of weapons of mass destruction was untrue. That, coupled with a misunderstanding of the complexities of the nation-building, altered public opinion. During the 2008 election, no foreign policy issue loomed larger that the war in Iraq. 

Obama’s political strategy worked. By November 2011, 74 percent of Americans supported Obama’s decision to withdraw troops. But the circumstances in Iraq continued to deteriorate. Religious cleansing, for example, has resulted in the dramatic decline of the Christian population, from 1.5 million before America’s involvement to less than 400,000 today. Other religious minorities face similar torment.

In June, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a jihadist group and self-proclaimed caliphate, launched a campaign to establish an Islamic state in Iraq. Their brand of vicious thuggery is predicated on thievery and mass killing, and thus far they have achieved enough to capture one-third of the country, murder thousands of innocent people, and put the Iraqi leaders on the defensive. When they captured the town of Mosul, the second-largest in Iraq, Christians were given a choice: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or be put to death.  

Consider what Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post: “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is virtually empty of Christians. Hundreds of thousands of residents, including Christian and Yazidi religious minorities, are at immediate risk of being slaughtered.”  

The threat of genocide demanded action, and in that respect America can learn from its tepid past. As Samantha Power, now the Ambassador to the United Nations, observed, “Irrespective of the political affiliation of the president at the time, the major genocides of the post-war era -- Cambodia (Carter), northern Iraq (Reagan, Bush), Bosnia (Bush, Clinton) and Rwanda (Clinton) -- have yielded virtually no American action and few stern words.”

We should all be terrified by what ISIS represents, so, to me, it was encouraging that on Thursday of last week Obama launched a targeted bombing campaign near Erbil both to fend off ISIS and to aid 40,000 displaced Yazidi religious minorities stranded on Mount Sinjar. [1] In his own national address, Obama said, “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

Yesterday, the government announced it was sending an additional 130 military advisors – Marines and Special Operations forces – to aid in the evacuation of the Yazidi group. President Obama has said that while the bombings will be sustained he will not commit ground troops. The greater question, of course, is can he hold on to that position and for how long.

If it was a terrible decision to go to war in 2003, it seems awfully beside the point now. The ramifications of American action then and inaction in recent years have complicated the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, including a crumbling Iraq.

It may be that, a war-weary electorate notwithstanding, Obama’s strategy in Iraq – to “end this war” – is impractical considering the long-term threat ISIS poses. [2] And until the president articulates a political strategy to complement a military one, including how to address the on-going conflict in Syria, we cannot know for sure. Despite criticisms of the president, that opacity does not, in my view, diminish the president’s immediate position to stave off genocide and stop the ISIS acceleration towards Baghdad, particularly when weighed against the cost of in-action.

Obama’s targeted military campaign will not rid the world of ISIS, but it will help many thousands of people who are trying to survive. After all, in the face of such evil and toward the pursuit of a democratic Iraq, what other choice do we have?

But examining this in the context of the wider world, the matter for the president – and for us – is what comes next, because the fate of Middle East may come to be, more than any other, the defining issue of his presidency.




[1] If you are keeping count, Obama is the fourth consecutive American president to engage in some form of military intervention in Iraq.

[2] It is worth noting that it is very difficult to consider this action apart from the political turmoil with the Iraqi government. President Fouad Massoum has appointed Haidar al-Abadi to form a new government over Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, whom America aided in taking control of power in 2006. According to news reports on Monday, Malaki signaled he was unwilling to relinquish power. If, for example, that situation were to escalate (and Malaki’s decision to mobilize military forces to secure the Green Zone of government buildings in Baghdad and surround the city was not encouraging to that end, although he has since stated he will not result to military force to achieve a political purpose), the consequences are rather significant.
 
(Blake Rutherford is vice president of The McLarty Companies and previously was chief of staff to the Arkansas attorney general. You can follow him on Twitter at BlakeRutherford. His opinion column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)