We may call the latest U.S. intervention “humanitarian” and “limited,” but make no mistake: President Barack Obama’s decision to bomb Iraq will cause further violence and deterioration in that country, and draw the United States deeper into a quagmire of a civil conflict in Iraq and across the region.
No one can deny that Iraq is in crisis now. There is a political, humanitarian and military catastrophe taking place in the country, and it is only getting worse. The Sunni extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State has been involved in massive violations of human rights, including murder, ethnic cleansing and torture. But the Iraqi government forces, government-backed Shiite militias, and other ethnic and sectarian militias have also been committing gross human rights abuses.
In the last decade or so, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed, and almost 5 million have been displaced — one of the largest ethnic and sectarian cleansing campaigns in the history of the Middle East. Serious crimes have been committed by almost every political faction in Iraq. While focusing on the actions of one terrorist group might be good for an easy narrative where the United States and its allies step in to save the day, the other participants in Iraq’s civil war are literally getting away with murder. A new U.S. military intervention in such a complex conflict is not sustainable and will not help Iraqis build their nation or fight extremism.
Humanitarian assistance is much needed and welcomed, but it should go through legitimate U.N. and other international agencies. 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 intervention is a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line? What about civilians killed by the Islamic State in Syria? What about other thirsty children stuck on a mountain or in the middle of a desert elsewhere?
The United States, for its part, is not a charity organization, nor is it a neutral bystander. Washington is an active participant in the conflict. In addition to authorizing direct strikes, the Obama Administration continues to arm the Iraqi government forces and ethnic Iraqi militias and paramilitary groups. Even since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, Washington has continued its intervention in Iraq by selectively arming and training some sides of the civil conflict. The practical implications of this policy are devastating for the future of Iraq because it increases divisions and makes it harder for Iraqis to unite. Arming Iraqi factions is also a path of dubious legality, and it is illegal under U.S. and international law to arm and train groups implicated in gross human rights violations.
The crisis in today’s Iraq is not a result of a natural disaster — it is a direct consequence of earlier U.S. military interventions. Much of the destruction in Iraq’s infrastructure, state legitimacy and national identity was either caused directly by the United States or happened under the watch. The United States also played a lead role in installing the current ethno-sectarian political system that continues to be one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional in the world.
Iraq cannot be bombed into stability or moderation. So-called surgical strikes will not transform the war-torn nation into a peaceful and prosperous one. While the United States should search for productive multilateral methods to help Iraq, our top priority should be doing no additional harm.