Scratch the surface of most of the world’s armed conflicts and you won’t see an ideological struggle or deep-seated ethnic or religious hatred that has erupted in a war of all against all. Rather, what you’ll find is a collection of thugs for hire, some in uniforms and some not, who are taking advantage of the chaos of war to prey on the weak. Sometimes this involves stealing oil or diamonds, or sexual brutality. But it’s pretty rare that it involves some larger design. True, the hooligans who take part in these orgies of destruction will often claim loyalty to some larger cause. They’re usually lying. The only heroes you’ll find in these wars are the people fighting for their lives and their loved ones.
The war that is now unfolding in Iraq is something different, and something much scarier. 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 now, without a moment to spare, President Obama has decided to do something. For months, the president has resisted committing U.S. military forces to the fight against ISIS. But ISIS’s campaign of extermination against Iraq’s religious minorities has stirred him to action. In a nationally televised address on Thursday night, the president announced that he had authorized a limited bombing campaign against ISIS as well as a humanitarian effort on behalf of the stranded Yazidis.
Though I’ve criticized the Obama administration for withdrawing from Iraq at the tail end of 2011, I recognize that the decision to intervene militarily now is a thorny one. ISIS has succeeded in no small part because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has failed to win the confidence of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who’ve suffered mightily from his sectarian chauvinism. Coming to the Iraqi government’s rescue looks a little too much like forgiving Maliki for his sins. Most of the defense wonks who’ve called for the president to come to Iraq’s aid have insisted, quite reasonably, that Maliki first agree to build a more inclusive government that all Iraqis can trust and respect—a reasonable request given the stakes. Maliki’s refusal to make meaningful concessions has made a large-scale intervention profoundly unattractive.
But the prospect of genocide changes things. What President Obama understands, I hope, is that if ISIS succeeds in routing the Kurds and collapsing the fragile Iraqi state, there will be no end to the killing. American military power cannot make Iraq whole again. It can, however, help give the Kurds a fighting chance to beat back ISIS, and to establish a safe haven for the members of religious minorities fleeing from ISIS-held territory. And in doing so, it can buy time for Maliki to think hard about his legacy: whether to avoid sharing power he is truly willing to let Iraq once again become a slaughterhouse.
By giving the Kurds breathing room, the president is doing the honorable thing. Throughout America’s decadeslong entanglement in Iraq, it is the Kurds who have been our firmest friends. Right now, Kurds are fighting and dying to protect their homeland, yes, but also to defend Yazidis and Christians who cannot defend themselves. They are fighting for the entire civilized world, and for a country as powerful as our own to not lend them assistance would be genuinely shameful—not least because it is the U.S. invasion of Iraq that has contributed so much to that country’s unraveling.
I am a pessimist. Though I sincerely hope that the limited airstrikes authorized by the president will be enough to force ISIS into retreat, I don’t expect this gruesome war to end tomorrow. We need to start thinking about the Yazidis and the Christians and the other persecuted Iraqis who will need to find shelter somewhere other than Iraq. The United States welcomed as many as 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. We might have to welcome just as many from Iraq in the years to come.