Clash of Ideas

Why Liberals Should Back Iraq Intervention

Yes, the United States helped create ISIS. But that hardly means we shouldn’t try to correct the error. In fact, it means just the opposite.


We once thought, mistakenly, that the collapse of communism would bring with it the end of internal arguments within the broad left about American interventionism and, to dust off the old word that still gets plenty of exercise in some quarters, imperialism. There was, during the Cold War, a mainstream liberal-left that was anti-communist, and that sometimes rightly (Turkey, which Truman helped keep out of Stalin’s hands) and sometimes very wrongly (Vietnam) supported American action, including the military kind, to check the Reds. And there was a tendency farther to the left, where opinion might have been split on the USSR or China or Tito or Castro, but where said opinion clearly coalesced around the idea that most of the tragedy and evil in the world emanated not from Moscow but from Washington. Think George Kennan vs. Noam Chomsky.

That’s a history you either know or you don’t; I’ll not rehearse it further here (and actually I wasn’t entirely fair to Kennan above, since he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War). My point today is simply that this clash of ideas was supposed to stop mattering in 1991, when history “ended” and the Soviet Union ceased to be.

Well. History kept going, and it keeps reminding us that some things never change. Over the past decade, the same battalions have lined up against each other over Iraq and Syria and the larger questions that we face from the occupied territories to the Levant to Mesopotamia, lobbing exactly the same rhetorical grenades today as they did in the duck-and-cover era. And we’re hearing the arguments right now, with respect to the U.S. decision to bomb ISIS. Any thinking person should have reservations about getting drawn in to endless conflict and about the inevitable unintended consequences. But the logic of the anti-interventionist left is built today around the same moral flaw that it was during the Cold War. And the case against ISIS is about as clear as a case like this ever gets: We have to try to stop them.

You get into an argument with someone on the anti-intervention left—I’ve had lots of ’em, and as younger man I generally took that side—and what happens is, they tend to mention the United States’ great sins and crimes and think they’ve clinched the argument. Guatemala. Mossadegh. Allende. The Central American death squads. Indochina, East Timor, the Shah, our brief covert support for the Khmer Rouge. See, they say? That’s what you inevitably get when you want America to “exert her influence.”

It’s a grisly record, and no one should deny for a second that it exists. But two points. First, past sins and even crimes aren’t a reason to withdraw from the world. Indeed, their existence is all the more reason to try to get it right this time. How could the fact that we’ve often acted against our stated values in the past conceivably mean that we should never try to act in harmony with them?

And second, well, no, sorry—violence and death are not what you inevitably get when the United States exerts its influence. Sometimes, when skilled diplomacy takes the lead and military power a back seat, you get the Marshall Plan, or the Truman Doctrine, which may have averted a larger East-West war over the Dardanelles, or the Egypt-Israel Camp David peace, or the Dayton Accords, or the end in 2005 of Syria’s nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon (that’s not something we “did,” but pressuring Syria after the assassination of Rafik Hariri was one actual good thing that George W. Bush managed to pull off). So, yes, the list of blunders and crimes is long. But there’s also a list of successes, and of crises averted (admittedly harder to measure), because the United States played an active role in the world that wasn’t necessarily or wholly military. And, by the way, it’s not wholly military in Iraq now—we’re working hard diplomatically to get the hopelessly sectarian Nouri al-Maliki out of there in favor of a new prime minister.

I’m not linking arms with John McCain here. I was against the Iraq War, and the neocons and their Cold War precursors have unleashed far more carnage on the world (including ISIS itself) than anyone on either of our two American lefts. I’m against “democracy promotion” neocon style, but for democracy promotion without the scare-irony quotes—that is, efforts to help the small-d democrats in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and elsewhere, who live these battles every day.

It was striking over the weekend to compare Obama’s remarks to Tom Friedman about Syria and Hillary Clinton’s words to Jeffrey Goldberg on the topic. Obama dismissed the notion of any kind of moderate Syrian opposition as a “fantasy,” as he has many times. Clinton, meanwhile, said the “failure” to try to build a credible fighting force “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” She might have added that Bashar al-Assad is still killing hundreds of people a month, too. I have no idea how likely it is we could have prevented these developments, but sometimes in foreign policy, intentions are almost as important as results. I’d rather live in a country that tried.

Which brings us to ISIS. There is much confusion today on two issues. Is the Islamic State a fearsome fighting force, full of battle-hardened ex-Iraqi generals, stuffed to the gills with state-of-the-art U.S. equipment, ready at the flip of a wrist to extend its reach from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean? Or is it maybe a tad overrated? I read on a Kurdish website over the weekend of one Peshmerga commander saying, after the first two successful U.S. military strikes: “Another two airstrikes by the U.S. will completely destroy the military ability of IS.”

The second question, which also bears directly on the group’s power, is whether it really has all that money. When ISIS fighters took Mosul, news accounts spread of the $429 million they looted from the bank. That’s a lot of dosh, and that, along with their oil revenues (they’re selling oil to Assad, even as the two are fighting each other!), means that they can finance a lot of mayhem and pay soldiers well, which other guerilla-terrorist groups can’t. But now there seems to be some doubt as to whether that bank robbery happened. So maybe the Islamic State is not as terrifying as we thought.

But if they really aren’t as formidable as we thought, that’s all the more reason to take them out now. You and I don’t know their capabilities, but we do know their intentions. They’ve been as clear on this point as they could possibly be: Their vision is of a caliphate, taking in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, of some 60 million people, governed by total, reactionary, paleolithic nightfall. Here’s a snippet of an Associated Press article, dateline Beirut, that moved over the weekend:

“A cleric read the verdict before the truck came and dumped a large pile of stones near the municipal garden. Jihadist fighters then brought in the woman, clad head to toe in black, and put her in a small hole in the ground. When residents gathered, the fighters told them to carry out the sentence: Stoning to death for the alleged adulteress.

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None in the crowd stepped forward, said a witness to the event in a northern Syrian city. So the jihadist fighters, mostly foreign extremists, did it themselves, pelting Faddah Ahmad with stones until her body was dragged away.”

This was in Raqqa, the center of ISIS’s strength in Syria. It was the second such incident in ISIS-held Syria in 24 hours. So that’s going on, along with the slaughter of the Yazidi people on the mountainside, and more. And on top of the crimes against humanity, imagine having to deal with this Islamic State as a state actor in the world, as a foreign-policy entity, in which form it may well exist someday if we do nothing to stop it.

Yes, we helped create these monsters, through action (Bush) and inaction (Obama). But that hardly means we should do nothing to rein them in. In fact it means the precise opposite. If ever we had a chance to live up to our values, it’s against ISIS and for the people in the region who despise them. Lectures about the evils of U.S. imperialism can wait.