On Thursday night, President Obama announced that he would allow limited airstrikes in Iraq to combat the growing influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
On Friday morning, the airstrikes began, as the US military used laser-guided missiles to strike ISIS artillery. The bombs were dropped by Navy F-18 fighter jets near Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. Strategically, Erbil is a very important city, as well as the location of a US consulate.
This will mark the first time since December 2011 that the United States has conducted any military operations in Iraq, yet it still feels all too familiar. With that said, these are completely different circumstances than what led up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The strike was announced by the Pentagon Press Secretary via Twitter on Friday morning.
US military aircraft conduct strike on ISIL artillery. Artillery was used against Kurdish forces defending Erbil, near US personnel. — Rear Adm. John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) August 8, 2014
At present, ISIS controls a large swath of territory, including parts of Syria, the strategic Iraqi city of Mosul and a great deal of Northern Iraq. They have also declared a Caliphate, which essentially means they plan to establish a strict version of Islam as the rule of law in the territory they control.
It's important to remember that, historically, not all Caliphates have been rooted in fundamentalism. However, ISIS is driven by extremism and a distorted view of history.
This map from Vox illustrates the current makeup the region:
The religious and territorial ambitions of ISIS are ultimately what have led the United States to conduct airstrikes in the region, among other more complex reasons.
More specifically, President Obama authorized the airstrikes to both protect American personnel in the region, as well as ethnic and religious minorities threatened by ISIS.
Relatedly, the most striking aspect of President Obama's announcement was his use of the word "genocide." There are fears that ISIS plans to exterminate entire groups of people. Indeed, ISIS has been ruthless against ethnic minorities in the region, particularly on a religious basis. At present, ISIS threatens the Kurdish capital of Erdil, as well the Iraqi Yazidi people.
The Yazidis are an ethno-religious group located primarily in Northern Iraq. As a consequence of the advance of ISIS, they have been forced to flee their homes in Sinjar.
At present, thousands of Yazidis are trapped on a remote mountain, Mount Sinjar, in Northern Iraq. As Vox notes, ISIS has labeled the Yazidis as "devil-worshippers," due to the fact that their religion mixes aspects of Zorastrianism and Islam.
As noted, ISIS adheres to an extremely radical version of Islam, and has pledged to kill any of those that do not covert. They have already videotaped brutal acts to prove this, such as forcing a Christian man to convert to Islam at gunpoint and then beheading him.
Accordingly, President Obama used the term "genocide" in his announcement because, if given the chance, ISIS might literally exterminate the Yazidi people.
In addition to airstrikes, the US military has dropped supplies on Mount Sinjar for the Yazidis. According to the New York Times, 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 ready meals were dropped by several aircraft escorted by F-18 fighters.
The decision to conduct airstrikes did not come lightly for President Obama, who has habitually avoided intervening in Middle Eastern affairs throughout his presidency. Undoubtedly, he will face criticism as a consequence.
As the New York Times notes, Obama had stated he did not want to intervene in Iraq unless the three main ethnic groups agreed upon a government based on national unity. Furthermore, "The decision could also open Mr. Obama to charges that he is willing to use American military might to protect Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities, but not to prevent the slaughter of Muslims by other Muslims, either in Iraq or neighboring Syria."
Intervention is a messy business. Throughout history, more often than not, it has failed. This is particularly true in Iraq, which the United States learned the hard way.
Yet, President Obama has every right to protect American personnel in Erdil, and it is admirable that he is providing humanitarian aid to the Yazidis. Moreover, when an international actor, like the United States, has the ability to prevent atrocities in the world, they arguably have a responsibility to do so.
This is an internationally recognized norm known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). There are three pillars to R2p, outlined by the United Nations:
1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes.
If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
At present, the Iraqi state does not have the capacity to prevent these crimes, as it has been unable to quell the chaos that has consumed the country. As the nation with the most powerful military in the world, however, the United States does have the ability to deter such atrocities.
Furthermore, R2P also states that a nation's sovereignty can be violated in order to stop crimes against humanity. In essence, if a country, like Iraq, is unable to prevent crimes against humanity, then those with the capacity to do so have every right to intervene.
Accordingly, the United States and the international community have a responsibility to prevent ISIS from killing the Yazidi people as well as Christian groups in the region also threatened by ISIS.
Hence, limited airstrikes are not only proportional in these circumstances, but also justified.
On the other hand, in 2003, when America invaded Iraq at the behest of the Bush administration, it was completely unjustified. It was an illegal invasion, not recognized by the international community.
Moreover, despite repetitive claims from Vice President Cheney that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), there was no evidence to support these assertions. As we now know, they were ultimately proven to be false.
Simply put, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was disproportionate and unwarranted. Furthermore, the 2003 Iraq War completely dismantled the region, and the chaos we are witnessing today is a direct product.
Yet, at present, there is substantial evidence that ISIS desires to kill minority groups. Therefore, a limited military response is extremely prudent. There are palpable goals in this operation, unlike the 2003 Iraq War.
As Max Fisher, the Content Director at Vox, tweeted last night:
If you’re ISIS, the implicit proposition from the US is pretty clear. Stay away from Kurdistan and the rest of northern Iraq is all yours. — Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) August 8, 2014
Indeed, President Obama's actions have sent a very clear message to ISIS: Stay out of Kurdistan and away from American personnel. Moreover, Kurdistan is one of the only remaining stable territories in the region.
The Kurds are skilled fighters and greatly outnumber ISIS, and could prove to be an extremely valuable ally for the United States in the future. Hence, there are many practical reasons to offer them support.
President Obama has worked hard to avoid US involvement in Iraq, but as noted by the New York Times, the suffering of the Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar seemed to push him over the edge.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has engaged in what some might characterize as cautious and disengaged diplomacy. Thus, this is an uncharacteristic action for him. The ultimate consequences remain to be seen, but it could be one of the most defining moments of his time in office.
The United States has a complicated role in today's world. There is a continuous debate surrounding whether or not the United States should act as a world police.
In most circumstances, the United States should not act without international consensus. This ideal has been a benchmark of Obama's presidency.
As Max Fisher notes, Obama did not have support for intervention in Syria, which is why he ultimately decided not to go down that road. With this intervention, however, it seems that Obama has broad international support, as the United Nations Security Council recently condemned ISIS.
Only time will tell of course, but perhaps Obama has just displayed the model for American intervention. The key components of this equation are international consensus, imminence and proportionality.
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