This is an editorial I’ve been sitting on for a long time. I hoped that, as time went on, the need for it would decline. However, regrettably, in 2016 both of our Presidential candidates were committed to insanity regarding ISIL and Syria, and so now these comments must be even more carefully examined.
It’s common for left-wingers, when looking at American interventions, to point to the hypocrisy and real motives of elites. When it came to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, we pointed out that the U.S. had supported Saddam Hussein, that the invasion was about oil and demonstrating U.S. power far more than democracy, that the U.S. would impose its own colonial-type regime onto Iraq, and that the attack would destabilize the region and undermine the rule of law. We made clear that the threats of WMDs, though real, would be worsened by an attack because it would cause looting (which was picked up as a bit of propaganda by conservatives when WMDs weren’t found, with apparently no sense of irony or recognition of the fact that that would have been a concession that Iraqi Freedom was a bungled Orwellian nightmare rather than a sincere attempt to deal with a real threat).
And then we got ISIL.
This is, of course, the pattern of U.S. interventions in the region: we take secular nationalists, whether they be vile like Saddam or quite reasonable like Mossadeq, and eventually trade them in for far more dangerous regimes, usually religious ones. We traded Mossadeq for the Khomeini, the PLO for Hamas and Hezbollah, and now ISIL for Saddam.
But as dishonest, hypocritical and overtly imperialistic as the ambitions of the U.S. government and military may be, the fact is that most people aren’t elites.
And I fear that there’s a communication gap between us on the Left and the average American, who may mistrust the government but still looks at ISIL and sees moral cowardice for us not doing something.
See, America has a lot of problems, cultural and institutional. (This should be controversial to precisely no one: it just means we’re not perfect, just like every other society in history). But America also has a wonderful set of values and aspirations. We’re optimists, and we’re also people who love the idea of heroism. It’s not a coincidence that America is the prime source of the action hero, the cowboy, and the superhero: Americans believe the world can be perfected and that bullies should be stopped.
I certainly believe that. The fact that, all too often, my own government is the bully doesn’t change that calculus. The fact that we, all too often, train torturers, back dictatorial regimes, overthrow democracies, and kill innocent people in security theater doesn’t make ISIL any better.
So what can we say to the average American who may understand our objections from international law, hypocrisy and so forth, but still feel that it costs us our soul to stand idly by as ISIL threatens so many people?
Well, first of all, we can say that very few people are opposed to an intervention per se. I’m not. Neither’s Noam Chomsky, despite his resistance to the Iraq War and indeed most wars. U.S. airstrikes to protect Kurds, for example, could be quite justified. Hell, working with the Kurds more broadly to stop ISIL could be quite reasonable.
Of course, to really gain credence and credibility with the Kurds, we’d need to, say, stop kowtowing to Turkish genocide. If we wanted to gain any credibility when dealing with Islamists and jihadists, we’d need to stop supporting the Saud regime, whose export of radical ideology helps create and sustain the atmosphere that produces both Islamists and jihadists.
But there’s no reason why such an intervention has to be against international law. We can at least try to go through the proper routes in the United Nations. Every time the United States acts against international law, we not only show contempt for our own Constitution but also for the autonomy and rights of other people. While national sovereignty isn’t perfect as a framework for people to express their collective decisions and rights, it’s the best we’ve got, and when we throw bombs indiscriminately in violation of international law, we make even that miniscule self-determination effectively moot. That’s the dark side of vigilantism: it tells the world that you believe everyone else’s rules don’t apply to you.
And that’s the biggest problem that America has. Even putting aside the reality of collateral damage and the reality that American airstrikes are actually pro-ISIL propaganda that allow them to paint the U.S. as hypocrites supporting Assad, putting aside the reality that social systems and social problems are complicated and they react about as well to bombs as your car does to a sledgehammer, the fact is that the U.S. has no credibility left.
You don’t get to traipse around the region for more than sixty years installing puppet states, backing the most repressive regimes like the Sauds and the Shah, overthrowing societies, and causing crisis after crisis in your wake and get to have anyone trust you.
After all, ISIL was born thanks in no small part to the former Ba’athists and the U.S. invasion in Iraq creating a power vacuum thanks to horrific mismanagement. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that would eventually become the Islamic State, had a complex relationship with the Ba’athists, but it’s unquestionable that, for example, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order fought with ISIL, and after Tikrit fell in 2014 many Ba’athist veterans joined with ISIL.
Similarly, in Syria, the reality is pretty clear: Resisting Assad means, for many, signing up with ISIL. Assad has himself taken advantage of anti-ISIL attacks to be able to focus on moderate rebels.
This is the hard lesson of heroism. When you screw up, when you lose people’s trust, you can’t easily get it back.
Anyone who’s ever worked in any kind of people-centered profession knows this. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a social worker, teacher, mentor, AA sponsor, or anything else: if you’re trying to do something positive for other people and you screw up, especially if you screw up due to selfishness or deliberate ignorance, you lose your credibility. And you have no right to demand that people continue to expect you to act in good faith.
The U.S. has no credibility in the region anymore, and hasn’t had it for some time. Decades of hypocrisy, of backing repressive regimes while touting democracy and acting as if in favor of peace while being quite happy to be involved in the Iraq-Iran War and with Israel’s aggressive acts, has made it so that the U.S. can’t plausibly do very much in the region.
When that happens, there is a solution: provide help to those who can.
That’d mean the U.S. subordinating itself to the United Nations, putting U.S. forces under their command, and having little command authority. It’d mean apologizing, formally, for the invasion of Iraq. It might even mean reparations.
Whether or not it is the intent, at present U.S. policy seems to be largely self-serving: protect local U.S. assets, maintain control of oil supplies, use ISIL as a threat to prop up military spending, etc. While some policies have worked, the sheer degree of apparent incompetence suggests either that America is malicious or that it simply is out of its depth. Either way, it needs to stop.
The small-scale bombing campaigns by the U.S. don’t work. It’s pretty clear that it would take a massive, concerted effort to stop ISIL, and many Americans don’t want to commit that much. And, no, Trump isn’t really changing this dynamic. He talks a big game, but the fact that his plans have been famously vague is indicative of the fact that he knows full well that a major ground invasion would be unpopular even with his base.
In any instance, the ethical reality is quite simple: First, do no harm.
It’s not the duty of those who propose peace and inaction to suggest why we should be peaceful.
It’s the duty of those who propose violence to prove not just that there’s a problem, but that violence can solve it without creating worse problems.
This is true no matter what policy is being discussed. Even if we just want to propose a new tax plan, the burden of proof is on those making the affirmative claim that we want to change a policy. But when it comes to violence, the burden of proof must be extraordinarily high, because we know that even the smallest errors can create intolerable outcomes. A war is not like a hot dog: we can’t tolerate proverbial rat parts in a war. It has to be done near-perfectly for it to have reliable, consistent outcomes.
Can anyone honestly say that they’ve been presented with a plan to beat ISIL that would obviously work? Can anyone say that they’ve been presented with a plan that would not ultimately create more terror, more instability, and more harm? Can we stop ISIL without empowering al-Nusra, or giving Assad the ability to destroy moderate rebels and consolidate his brutal regime?
If anyone has a plan that can manage all that, I’d love to hear it. I put off doing this piece for so long because I was waiting for someone to tell me such a plan, and doing research on it. But it strikes me, quite clearly, that even if there is such a plan, the U.S. should not be the one to enact it. The UN would still be the far better agency. But that’s off the table, a priori, because, well, giving power to international agencies doesn’t suit an empire.
And so this is where we are. There’s evil in the world that we’d like to do something about. And that evil, in this case, is in no small part our fault: Americans, by not stopping the war in Iraq, helped create ISIL. But just because there’s evil doesn’t mean you get to throw punches randomly, kill civilians and do more harm than good. Just like a well-meaning but clumsy person can break what they’re trying to fix, so too can even a well-meaning populace cause great harm, especially if they allow those with self-serving agendas and rationalizations to dictate that policy.
We have a moral duty to prevent the next Iraqi “Freedom”. We have a moral duty, as Americans and as global citizens, to question what we will be hearing from this aggressive, militaristic administration, to pose challenges and pose arguments, and to not back down if we are told that we are being unpatriotic.
Because it is the height of patriotism to make sure that your government does not needlessly kill innocent people.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.