A Yazidi man. (photo: AP)
10 August 14
hen U.S. president Barack Obama began unilaterally bombing Islamist militants in northern Iraq, some Americans and Europeans may have thought he was doing the right thing to protect endangered Christians, Kurds, and ancient Yazidis.
What will those folks think in the coming days or weeks when Russian president Vladimir Putin unilaterally sends Russian troops into eastern Ukraine on a “peacekeeping” mission to protect pro-Russian dissidents from being wiped out by the oligarchs in Kiev and their neo-Nazi henchmen?
Russian and American spin-masters will have no difficulty differentiating their own “humanitarian” venture from the imperialistic militarism of the other. But the similarities are striking.
Obama chose to protect certain endangered Iraqis at the very moment he was sending arms and intelligence to help the Israelis decimate the Palestinians in Gaza, while Putin will be defending his own kind – Russians and pro-Russians – from some other kind who happen to be Ukrainians. Humanitarian? Hardly.
Obama is also acting without clear legal authorization by the United Nations, much as George W. Bush did earlier in Iraq, as Clinton did in the former Yugoslavia, as George H.W. Bush did in Kuwait, and as Putin did in his “peacekeeping” defense of Abkhazia and Ossetia against the Georgians in 2008. An international rule of law? Horse feathers!
Far worse, we see the same old question that usually goes unasked at the beginning of any military action, no matter how humanitarian its proponents try to make their war sound. How are we going to get out of what we have now gotten into?
In the Ukraine, the answer will likely depend on whether German chancellor Angela Merkel can impose the deal her advisors have already leaked. Pushing the deal through will not be easy, given Ukraine’s long simmering nationalism, the new nationalism in Russia, and the continuing eagerness of the United States, Britain, Poland, Sweden, and others to expand the EU and newly rejuvenated NATO as far into Eurasia as they can.
In Iraq, the problem could prove even more intractable. Against a militant and militarily skilled movement like the Islamic State, or ISIS, how does Washington continue to protect the Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis? The U.S. has already increased its arming of the Kurdish peshmerga and enlarged the role of American Special Forces on the ground. Whatever Obama’s most heartfelt motivations, what is he going to do when all this proves too little and the government in Baghdad proves no less corrupt and no more able to unite the country than it has been since the Americans and their allies marched into Baghdad in 2003? What choice will he see as worse – a humiliating defeat or a renewed ground war in Iraq?
The best answer, of course, is never to have gone into the country in the first place. But that only works for winning an argument. It does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, if Obama insists on continuing the bombing, he should be forced to call Congress back into session for a full-scale public debate. Do we want to limit ourselves to humanitarian aid and lose small now with all the death and destruction that would entail? Or, do we want to risk losing big later with far greater death and destruction?
Better yet, let us consider a modest proposal. Now is precisely the moment to make peace with Iraq’s Iranian neighbor and with the Russians, and work with them and the other nations of the world to rebuild an international system that can deal with humanitarian crises without making them an adjunct to imperial adventure. I’m not the least bit optimistic, but isn’t it well past time for global leaders to begin acting like grown-ups?
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."