September 8, 2014—Over the past few months, President Barack Obama and various members of Congress have attempted to justify military intervention in Iraq. The reasons they have given vary, but all surround the spread of the extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Here are four questions Americans should ask about the government’s decision to resume bombing the country.
1) Is ISIS a threat to Americans?
Politicians such as Senator Lindsey Graham have claimed that ISIS is an existential threat to the United States saying, “I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists’ ability to operate in Syria and Iraq.” This has the ring of fear-mongering more than an honest assessment of reality. The president’s top military adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, has said that he has not seen any evidence of “active plotting against the homeland” by ISIS.
The irony is that ISIS has been strengthened as a result of US government policies in Syria and Iraq. In the attempt to oust Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the US supported the rebels with weapons. Some of these were obtained by the most radical elements: ISIS. These same extremists stole nearly a half a billion dollars in cash and more state-of-the-art US weapons as they rampaged across Iraq. So, the US government armed terrorists in Syria and is now fighting some of the same terrorists in Iraq who are fighting back against the US with its own weapons.
This is not to downplay the danger that well-armed militant groups pose to innocents anywhere they set their sights. ISIS and others such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have called for attacks against Americans. ISIS has even murdered two American journalists on video. However, these acts and calls for more like them are described by the militants as being in response to the US air war in Iraq. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have also warned that airstrikes could lead to retaliation. It would seem that to the extent ISIS is a direct threat to Americans, it is government policies that are provoking it to be so.
2) Is the bombing really for humanitarian purposes?
This is a regularly used justification for military intervention given by politicians. In the current crisis, the US has stated that entire minority communities – from Christians to the little known religious sect the Yazidis – face certain extinction without US bombing and perhaps even ground forces.
While the viciousness of the ISIS militants is undeniable, the official story has changed constantly. The original claim of 40,000 Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar and facing imminent genocide turned out to be in the low thousands. Those who remain on the mountain consider it their home and do not want to leave. Further, many of the attacks on the Yazidis came from their neighbors, not from ISIS.
In regards to Iraqi Christians, it should be noted that over one million of them lived in the country prior to the US war in 2003. Many hundreds of thousands fled during the US occupation and the number is estimated to now be as low as 200,000. In light of this recent history, skepticism regarding the US government’s so-called humanitarian motivations on the behalf of Christians is well founded.
Also, consider that the US used the same humanitarian rationale recently in both its war on Libya and its planned but aborted war on Syria last year. In the case of Libya, it falsely claimed that a hundred thousand civilians were about to be slaughtered by dictator Muammar Gaddafi. So, it bombed the country on behalf of the rebels, thus prolonging the civil war there and leaving the country in ruin. Officials also fabricated stories of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad being behind the use of chemical weapons against civilians. However, the American people rose up and demanded a stop to the attack.
3) Are “limited airstrikes” likely to escalate into something more?
The act of one country bombing another is an act of war. Thus, the US has quietly begun the third installment of the Iraq War. From here, escalation seems inevitable. There has already been “mission creep”—shifting objectives that expand and prolong the conflict. There are sure to be unintended consequences that simply cannot be foreseen from Washington D.C., which will make even more involvement necessary. Expansion of the war into neighboring Syria, which the US government has long wanted, is also likely.
The recent US military activity in Iraq began a few months ago with Obama declaring that he was sending 300 “advisers” to the country. That number was discovered to be nearly double and included 275 marines to guard the US embassy. Soon after, airstrikes were ordered. In response, ISIS has changed tactics and has transitioned from a traditional military force to an insurgency that tries to blend in with the population. This will make airstrikes increasingly ineffective. Even the Pentagon admits that the current airstrikes alone won’t stop the militants. Director of Operations Lt. Gen. William Mayville said, “I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained, or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of [ISIS].”
The goals that Obama has laid out for the military operations in Iraq cannot be achieved with limited airstrikes. Just as 300 advisers (which in reality was 575 and included combat troops) quickly turned into 108 warplanes and 8 ships, limited airstrikes could easily become a large number of ground troops in order to battle an insurgency that cannot be fought from the air. Indeed, the number of troops has already grown and currently stands at over 1,000.
4) What is the alternative?
In a word, the alternative is nonintervention. US policies of invasion, occupation, overthrowing leaders and arming rebels led to the conditions in which a group like ISIS can arise and thrive. The current bombing campaign boosts recruitment, solidifies support and further motivates ISIS. The US should not continue to double down on failed policies.
The US could remove its military forces completely and let those in the region sort out this tragic mess. ISIS is very unpopular due to its viciousness—even al-Qaeda has disavowed it. The nations surrounding ISIS have a strong incentive to not have on their border a violent group of extremists that claims dominion over vast swaths of land and kills whomever it chooses. Why would these countries trade with such a group or even recognize its legitimacy? How would ISIS survive in light of this reality?
Individual Americans who want to find a way to help can donate to organizations such as the Red Cross, which does not use bombs to distribute its humanitarian aid. They can also attempt to see through the pervasive war propaganda and withdraw their support from the US policy of intervention, which has failed repeatedly and left even more death, destruction and suffering in its wake. As seen in the recent Syria example, it is still possible for a popular uprising of Americans to stop the US government from its desired war making.
There is not an immediate and perfect solution to a problem that is the result of decades of foolish policies. But it would be unwise to assume that the current situation could not be made even worse. The notion that the US government can use its military to fix things has proven wrong, disastrous and deadly over and over again.