The Conundrum Over ISIS: The Issue of International Responsibility

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In the November/December issue of the Public i, my colleague Susan Shoemaker wrote a very compelling article against the use of U.S. military strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  After citing opinion polls finding that while 73% of Americans favored bombing ISIS, only 51% thought it might actually “work,” she asks a very poignant question: “What are the moral implications of a people that approves of bombing other countries even though they are not confident that it will help?”

Before probing the issue further, I will say at the outset that I completely agree with Susan that US interventions in other countries, from the overthrow of democratically elected government in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s to the invasion of Iraq, have been a disaster morally and politically.  The one exception to that in my mind was Clinton’s decision to join other NATO countries in trying to stop the Serbian encirclement and bombardment and sniping of civilians in the multi-religious and multi-ethnic city of Sarajevo.

Since I did think that the military force used against the assault on civilian citizens in Sarajevo was the right thing to do, it is obvious that while I hate war I am not a complete pacifist.  The default position for me has always been against war.  But, under certain conditions, I do think that nation states that have the capability to do so are under an obligation to attempt to come to the relief of victims of those who commit gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Gross Violations
ISIS engages actions that, taken as a complex, constitute a height of humanitarian law violation that is well beyond the norm even for habitual violators. Some of my progressive comrades have contended that it is just media hype, some have tried to diminish the significance of those violations by analogies to rights violations in or by the United States or other Western countries.  I have been extremely critical of those as well, but I think that ISIS represents something much worse.  For a more complete rendering, I would refer the reader to Amnesty International’s report on ISIS, “International Humanitarian Law and the Conduct of the Islamic State,” and to the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, called “Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria.”  These are not documents put out by the U.S. State Department.  Indeed, Amnesty International has been very critical of U.S. human rights violations, both domestic and foreign.

Prelude to an ISIS beheading

Prelude to an ISIS beheading

In summary, these reports substantiate that ISIS uses its military might to kill people who are not Muslims or who do not conform to their special brand of Islam, to rape and capture women in these other groups in order to place them in sexual slavery, to execute prisoners it takes, to decapitate hostages (including American civilians) and distribute the videos of this hideous process over social media, to torture and kill people who speak out against their actions, to oblige children to watch and sometimes participate in their atrocities so they will become willing recruits in the barbarity, to forcibly displace people on the basis of their ethnicity or religion, and to destroy the cultural heritage represented by mosques, churches, monuments, and other cultural relics that have survived over centuries.  In other words, what the Nazis did to the Jews, ISIS does to everyone who falls under their control and refuses to accept their religious and ideological beliefs.  ISIS represents genocide on steroids.

International Obligation
It is rare that states act out of pure altruism.  Aside perhaps from the very generous development and humanitarian assistance programs provided by the Scandinavian
countries in the global South, some calculation of interest is mixed with altruism.
But if we admit that ISIS is as bad a violator of humanitarian law and human rights as I and international human rights organizations contend they are, and if we admit that there is a moral obligation to try to spare as many people as possible from falling under their control, we are going to have to rely upon the intervention of the military forces of states that have the capacity.  It would be nice if the United Nations had such a force, but it does not.  It can supply “peace keeper” soldiers from countries willing to offer them.  But these Blue Helmets are not an offensive fighting force, as was evident in the 1995 Srebrenica massacres of approximately eight thousand Bosnian men and boys by a Serbian force that the peacekeepers could do nothing to stop.  Thus, both UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the U.N. Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, have called for nations with the capability to come to the aid of the people of Kobani.  De Mistura said: “You remember Srebrenica. We never forgot and we probably never forgave ourselves for that.”  (New York Daily News online edition, October 10, 2014)

No internal force in either Serbia or Iraq could have come to the assistance of the Yazidis
(members of a Kurdish religion linked the  Zoroastrianism of ancient Mesopotamia), other Kurds, Christians, secularists, or non-ISIS Muslims.  The only countries able to do that were countries that had a significant military air capacity.  The U.S. had the greatest capability, but at least five other states have engaged in air attacks against ISIS.
I think that there was a moral obligation to do just that, even if that also served other US interests.  It is obviously in the interest of the United States to not have Iraq and Syria controlled by ISIS governments. I think that is a legitimate interest, and one that is widely shared internationally.

Will it “Help”?
Let’s go back to Susan’s question: “What are the moral implications of a people that approves of bombing other countries even though they are not confident that it will help?”  What do we mean by help?  If by “help” we mean will it assist democratic movements, or nondemocratic but secular movements, or just moderate nonaggressive movements to come to power in either Iraq or Syria–maybe a little in the longer term, but maybe not.  On the other hand, if we mean by “help,” does it help people avoid being victimized in the brutal way that ISIS victimizes people who don’t join or submit to them, then the answer is yes.  At least some people, although I can’t give a precise number, have been helped to avoid death or a fate of subjugation when ISIS’s advances have been stalled or when ISIS has been routed from territory they held.  Furthermore, it could prove to be of help to the Iraqi national forces by giving them time to regroup and become a more effective force to counter ISIS.

I think that those nations that have the capacity to be of this kind of “help” also have the moral obligation to so. Now, national interest might restrain some from doing it, as has been the case of Turkey despite pleas from UN and U.S. officials for it to be of military assistance.  But since the U.S. has the capacity to do it, and since President Obama was willing to do it, whatever the combination of morality and national interest I think he did the right thing in attacking ISIS from the air. At the same time, I do share the worry of Susan and most Americans about an escalation into another ground war with U.S. troops, and I agree that any military action involves some collateral casualties. I don’t take those downsides lightly. But the only thing I detest more than military force is genocide and the kind of wanton cruelty exhibited by ISIS and the Serbian militia that slaughtered mainly Moslem civilians in Bosnia.

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