Many believe the United States has become weak on the world stage under President Obama. Vladimir Putin has become drunk with power and embolden by inaction to influence the unrest in Ukraine among pro-Russian separatists as he masses thousands of troops at the border; the Syrian civil war has created a hotbed for jihadists around the world, and radical Islamist fighters have begun to seize parts of Northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region as part of a broader effort to expand their self-proclaimed Islamic State. President Obama authorized force and the military conducted several strikes today against Islamic militant munitions used to threaten Kurds and Americans in Kurdistan.
Why has Obama decided now is the time to strike in Iraq? One reason, as several have pointed out, is his commitment to humanitarianism. In a speech delivered by the president late last night, he stated, “Meanwhile, ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant] forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide.” “Genocide” seems to be the key word in the discussion. That also begs the question, as many commentators have asked, why is this situation of “genocide” different than brutality occurring in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere? The president also stated yesterday:
“[T]he United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
Despite what many have said before, the United States is not an indispensable nation. World War II provides a useful example for use of United States force. The Second World War had been raging for two years before the United States became directly involved and that was only after the United States was attacked. Germany and the Axis powers continued to take territory after territory including occupation of US ally France. In addition, German forces bombarded England – arguably the United States’ strongest ally – with bombs in nightly raids killing thousands – before the United States became overtly involved in hostilities.
The United States was not quick to come to overt military aid for their allies against the Axis powers during the War. Unlike today, the United States did not get involved until their territory was attacked. The operations conducted by the military today were done to protect the interests and lives of many State Department officials in Northern Iraq and are consistent with the president’s Article II constitutional authority regarding self-defense. The strikes targeted mortars and other equipment used by Islamic fighters to attack the Kurdish region.
The World War II era was a much different time and the war was an event that unified the world. Today, each conflict poses its own set of problems and the United States cannot afford (financially or logistically) to involve itself militarily in each simultaneously. Furthermore, the United States has found it difficult to unify partners around the world, especially in Europe vis a vis Russia, to stand up against aggression. However, many of the president’s opponents suggest supplying arms to vetted rebel factions before resorting to military action. The United States has maintained that it is up to the host governments to gain control of their region, however the efforts of air attacks by the United States may be necessary to assist weaker indigenous ground troops in Iraq. Former Ambassador James Jeffrey stated, “This al-Qaeda offshoot will not be stopped without the use of American military power.” As Senator Dianne Feinstein also stated today, “It takes an army to defeat an army, and I believe that we either confront ISIL now or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger enemy in the future.”
The Islamic State is most likely going to get larger given the weakness of host armies to stop them. Though, as in World War II, despite German gains of territory, the United States did not get involved until they themselves were attacked – also there was a large coalition against them, which would greatly aid the situation today much like the multi-nation NATO effort in Libya in 2011.
As Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO and President of the New America Foundation, stated, “Americans have no stomach for renewed war in the Middle East, until we are once again attacked, either at home or in other countries, by Jihadists trained in which essentially will become an Al-Qaeda state right in the middle of the Middle East.” Ms. Slaughter brings forth a valid point. The US military action today was preventative and not necessarily reactionary. According to a Defense Department statement, the US strikes were to defend the Kurdish capital from imminent threats from Islamic fighters. Though, the president has maintained that the United States’ military effort will be small and short term. The United States may want to consider ramping up action against the Islamic State if they cross the border into Jordan, a US ally, as some suspect they are planning. Such a move would further demonstrate how ambitious the Islamic State is and how dangerous they can be given the large territory they have already taken control of. It would also be important for the United States to support allies who have virtually had nothing to do with provoking the Islamic State other than harboring refugees displaced from Syria and allowing the US to covertly train vetted rebel factions.
World War II provides a sensible model for the United States regarding intervention in global affairs. The United States does not maintain a military commitment to Ukraine as Ukraine is not a NATO country – though depending on the humanitarian situation, President Obama may be persuaded to act given his commitment to humanitarianism and the influence of his top advisors. Ms. Slaughter poses a serious quandary in terms of intervention in Iraq and possibly Syria: will the United States wait to be attacked by Islamists before getting more overtly involved (attacked does not necessarily mean the homeland but possibly citizens in Iraq such as State Department members and advisors) or will the United States take action before Islamists gain more territory and threaten US allies? If World War II is any indication, it will be the former.