Backing Barack for going back to Iraq

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

President Barack Obama’s decision to  authorize limited and targeted air strikes against the ultra-terrorist marauders of ISIS (the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”) was an absolutely essential humanitarian act, which he said was designed to prevent a “genocide” in that divided and war-torn nation.  

Some 20,000 members of the Yazidi religious community, belonging to a sect with roots going back to the sixth century, and which posed a threat to no one, were trapped without food or water atop the remote Mount Sinjar. Many of them, including children, were dying of hunger and dehydration. The air strikes, which started Friday, and which Obama warned will not be a short-term campaign, was accompanied by an emergency drop of food and water to the desperate, stranded Yazidis.

Obama’s use of the term genocide is not a hyperbolic comparison of the ISIS rampage to the Holocaust, though such comparisons are truly justified for a group that has shown such cold-blooded, heartless ruthlessness over the past few months. The U.S. Senate ratified, and President Ronald Reagan signed, the Genocide Convention in 1988, which binds signatory states to use all means necessary to prevent the systematic targeting and murder of innocent civilians on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin or religion. ISIS has gone out of its way to defy the Geneva Convention and international treaties as it has targeted Christians, Shia Muslims and the Yazidis. All members of targeted religions and ethnicities have been given the choice to convert to Islam, leave the country or be executed.

Some of the reliable reports coming out of the Islamic State-controlled areas are almost beyond comprehension, including descriptions of Yazidi men, women and children being buried alive; hundreds of women captured and taken into virtual slavery and the killing of non-Sunnis even if they do comply with the demand that they convert to Sunni Islam. Since the Holocaust, numerous historians questioned why the United States and its World War II allies did not bomb the rail lines leading to the Auschwitz death camps, even though German industrial targets were within easy striking distance of Auschwitz. When Obama was told by his advisers that a genocide of the Yazidis and Christians was an imminent possibility, he had no choice but to come to the aid of the victims.

When Obama ordered the military strikes in Iraq last Friday, anguish was visible on his face and audible in his voice. He had promised during his campaign for the 2008 election to end the war in Iraq. He ultimately accepted the refusal by the obstructionist Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to allow the United States and its allies to keep a residual force in Iraq to prevent the fragile country from falling apart. It is hoped that the dictatorial maliki can be soon forced out of office. Obama has been criticized by hawkish Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., for not trying hard enough to pressure Maliki to agree to a status of forces agreement.

There is some justification for McCain’s and Graham’s criticism. So eager was Obama to fulfill his campaign pledge to end the war in Iraq, some have argued, that he, too, readily allowed Maliki to veto the agreement to leave as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as a deterrent to a resumption of sectarian violence or the return of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The stunning success of ISIS, which even core Al Qaeda members consider too extreme, has taken the entire world off guard, though there were military and foreign policy experts who had been warning for months that ISIS was a growing threat.  Obama brushed aside questions about ISIS in a New Yorker magazine interview, in which he dismissed ISIS as a “junior varsity group.” That statement was as ill-advised as President George W. Bush’s “victory lap” in 2003 aboard a Navy ship beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”

Obama can also be faulted for announcing up front and repeatedly what the United States will not do — no boots on the ground, limited and targeted air strikes and a pledge that the U.S. will “not be dragged into another war in Iraq.” Why tell the enemy in advance what the United States will or will not do?  Did President Franklin D. Roosevelt assure the Japanese that the U.S. response to the attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would be limited? Another Roosevelt, Theodore, advised that American leaders should “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  Adversaries of the United States should be kept in the dark about what military options the U.S. will or will not exercise.

It is a bedrock principle of war and diplomacy that our enemies must fear us and our friends must trust us. Telling our enemies that they need not fear this or that strong military option not only emboldens our enemies, it causes our friends and allies to fear that they cannot count on us for support.

ISIS had been posing a direct threat to the Kurdish Autonomous Region, and to the U.S. Consulate in Irbil, the Kurdish capital.  Since the air strikes, the Kurdish Pesh Merga fighters have recaptured two key towns, which had fallen to the ISIS juggernaut.

To his credit, Obama has made it clear that the current operations in Iraq will not be over with quickly, which suggests that he plans to continue the air strikes and relief efforts without a firm deadline. Obama deserves credit for doing the right thing in his efforts to prevent another genocide in our time. He will deserve even more credit if he ceases to announce to ISIS what the United States will or will not do in the effort to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe of unbelievable proportions.  

Let us hope that he can summon the strength and resolve to do whatever is necessary to not only prevent genocide but to work with our allies to totally eliminate ISIS as a fighting force in Iraq.