Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The Obama Administration’s military action against the extremist ISIS group has sparked a debate among progressives.
University of Denver Professor Nader Hashemi, the co-editor of The Syria Dilemma, supports the U.S. move.
“If U.S. intervention can save minority populations who are facing mass atrocities then, yes, I support the intervention, just like I did in Bosnia and Kosovo,” Hashemi says. “My reasons are simple: What is the alternative? Watch the Yazidis die en masse at the hands of ISIS? Ideally, I would prefer a U.N. mandate and someone other than the United States to help the Yazidis, but in the absence of these things I will not oppose policies that save minorities who have been targeted for extermination.”
Trinity College Professor Vijay Prashad opposes U.S. military strikes, and the notion that the United States should play the role of a global savior.
“Obviously, the situation with the Yazidis was grave,” he tells The Progressive. “The U.N. secretary general asked all countries to use all their resources to help them: The various Kurdish fighters have been engaging with ISIS, including helping to take about ten thousand Yazidis across to Western Kurdistan in Syria. So it is not only the United States that has been operating here, although if you watch the news you would think that it is only the U.S. that can do anything—‘America is coming to help,” said Obama.”
Prashad also worries about the possibility of an open-ended intervention.
“The United States decided to bomb ISIS artillery,” he says. “This is not part of the humanitarian mission. It is something else.”
Iraqi-American Raed Jarrar shares Prashad’s concerns.
“Humanitarian assistance is much needed and welcomed, but it should go through legitimate U.N. and other international venues,” he writes in an op-ed for the Progressive Media Project. “As it stands, it is being used as a pretext to sneak in military strikes and more arms to some of Iraq’s fighting factions. Humanitarian interventionism might be an easy sell, but it’s a slippery slope as well. Now that the United States is back in Iraq, where do we draw the line?”
But Hashemi has little problem with the perhaps self-interested and expansive nature of the U.S. involvement.
“Interventions are always motivated by national interests,” he says. “For example, the United States did not intervene in WWII for humanitarian reasons, but one consequence of this intervention was that the Holocaust was brought to an end. The same applies for all the major interventions in the late twentieth century that stopped mass atrocities, such as India in East Pakistan, Tanzania in Uganda, Vietnam in Cambodia, and the Bosnia genocide.”
Stephen Zunes has followed these debates for a long time as a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, and he acknowledges that the Iraq intervention is “a tough one” for progressives. He says a case can be made for intervention in Iraq.
“The empirical data indicates that on average military intervention increases the violence in the short run,” he says. “This is primarily because the oppressors feel they have nothing to lose and take the gloves off completely, and the armed opposition feels no need to negotiate because they have foreign powers backing them. The data is less clear when there is genocidal kind of situation, where innocent noncombatants are being targeted when there are no major combat operations in the area.”
So, Zunes says, intervention could be justified in northern Iraq, but not in Syria. Similarly, Zunes says, intervention would have been defensible in Rwanda, but not in Libya.
Hashemi, who advocated for intervention also in Syria, lays out a list of criteria to decide on whether it is valid in a specific situation.
“What do organically connected and democratically minded grassroots leaders on the ground want from us?” he posits. “This should be the first question to ask when it comes to intervening to help oppressed peoples. Secondly, are there any nonviolent alternatives? Thirdly, what does international law allow?”
Zunes points out that ISIS’s rise owes much to the Bush Administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
“If Washington had listened to those of us who said a U.S. invasion of Iraq would likely lead to the rise of extremist Salafi movements, we would not be in this situation,” Zunes says. “I have a hard time with those who supported illegal and unnecessary wars that create new tragic situations turning to pacifists and other war opponents and demand, ‘What do we do now?’ ”
Some traditional critics of U.S. policy are calling for even stronger American action.
“Barack Obama’s decision to order limited air strikes against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq must be the first salvo in a coordinated, long-term and broad campaign by a large, even if undeclared, coalition to attack and ultimately break this monstrous evil,” Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine writes in the U.A.E.-based National newspaper.
And The Guardian warily supports the United States.
“After all that has passed in recent years, hesitation about any kind of intervention in the Middle East is entirely understandable,” the paper editorializes. “But the desperate plight of the Iraqi minorities and the potentially very serious threat to the Kurds surely warrants a fundamental reconsideration.”
Former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald differs sharply from his ex-colleagues.
“The suffering in Iraq is real, as is the brutality of ISIS, and the desire to fix it is understandable,” he writes for The Intercept, where he is currently employed. “There may be some ideal world in which a superpower is both able and eager to bomb for humanitarian purposes. But that is not this world.”