America's Moral Obligations in Iraq

"An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth," one Iraqi lawmaker warns.
Displaced Yazidi families from the Iraqi town of Sinjar (Ari Jalal/Reuters)

Which politician uttered the following words: “Do we sit on the sidelines and watch an entire people be slaughtered or do we marshal military forces and move in quietly to put an end to it?” John McCain? Joe Lieberman? Scoop Jackson? Wrong. The speaker was George McGovern, in August 1978.

McGovern is best known for his landslide defeat in the presidential election of 1972 and his impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War. Six years later, when he became the first senator to advocate U.S. military intervention next door in Cambodia, to stop the Khmer Rouge’s ghastly slaughter of between 1 and 3 million people, hawks were incredulous. The Wall Street Journal called McGovern’s stance “mind-boggling.” But as Samantha Power explains in A Problem from Hell, McGovern saw no contradiction in his positions. Vietnam, in his mind, had been a profoundly misguided application of American might to prevent a communist-led independence movement from liberating its country from Western control. Cambodia was genocide. In his view, the U.S. had a particular responsibility to prevent the latter because its war in Vietnam had helped cause the trauma and instability on which the Khmer Rouge seized.

If only McGovern were still alive today. Now, as then, war has made Americans tired and cynical. Our government has, once again, invented justifications for military action. It has, once again, tortured. It has, once again, proven wildly incompetent. And it has, once again, squandered money desperately needed at home. Understandably, most Americans never want to hear the word “Iraq” again. And those liberals who were wise enough to oppose invading Iraq in the first place have been understandably emboldened to oppose future wars. President Barack Obama is one of them.

But if McGovern were alive, my guess is that he’d watch this haunting speech by Fiyan Dakhee, a Yazidi member of Iraq’s parliament, and then cheer Obama’s decision Thursday night to take military action in the country. Today in northwestern Iraq, 30,000 to 40,000 people have fled to the Sinjar Mountains. If they stay, they will die of hunger and thirst. If they return to their villages, the men will be murdered and the women made slaves. Their crime is that they are Yazidis, members of one of the world’s oldest religions. The jihadist totalitarians of ISIS want to sacrifice them to god. In Dakhee’s words, “an entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth.”

I know, I know. As I have learned myself very painfully, there is an enormous amount the United States cannot do. It cannot solve Iraq’s political problems. It may not even be able to hold Iraq together. It cannot solve the horror in Syria. It cannot defeat the Taliban. It cannot stop Libya from descending into anarchy. But it can save the people in the Sinjar Mountains, both by dropping supplies to keep them alive, and by bombing ISIS so Kurdish forces can retake the areas nearby. And in so doing, it can stop genocide. Thankfully, Obama is doing just that.

Is there a risk that the U.S. will find itself sucked back into a costly and futile effort to impose our will on Iraq? Perhaps, but everything we know about Barack Obama suggests he will resist that fiercely. And so will most Americans.

It’s a risk worth taking, in part because in Iraq today, as in Southeast Asia four decades ago, we are culpable. Were it not for our war, and the anarchy it has bred, the Yazidis would likely not be facing imminent death. The reasons Americans want to turn away from Iraq are precisely the reasons we should not.

The impulse toward humanitarian intervention is dangerous. It can easily become hubristic. It can easily be exploited. Its means—which involve state violence—can often undermine its goals. But if crusades are dangerous, indifference is dangerous too. As sick as Americans are of the Middle East, as alien and hopeless as it seems today, we still have moral obligations there, less because we are Americans than because we are human beings.

“Away from all political disputes,” declared Dakhee in her speech, “we want human solidarity. I speak here in the name of humanity. Save us.” To the extent we can, we must. George McGovern would have understood why.

Presented by

Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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