After weeks of violent disarray in Iraq under assault from the Islamic State group, the United States moved to help an embattled minority, the Yazidis, through an airlift of supplies to refugees trapped in the mountains and airstrikes against the Islamic radicals who threatened them. This action has had broad approval across the political spectrum in the United States, with cautious support even from many anti-interventionist libertarians. But it also highlights the paradoxes of humanitarian intervention.
In a blog on the website of Commentary magazine, journalist Seth Mandel points out that intervention to help the Yazidi community was based partly on the fact that its plight put it in a narrow category of a persecuted minority in danger of genocide -- a prospect President Barack Obama invoked when announcing the airstrikes. The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority of fewer than a million, mostly living in Iraq, with beliefs that represent a mix of different traditions. Historically, they were often regarded as Islamic heretics and suffered persecution and forced conversion. The Islamic State group has called for their extermination. In the recent turmoil, they faced choosing between violent death at the hands of the jihadists or death from hunger and thirst in the mountains.
Yet Mandel raises a troubling question: What about other groups that face unspeakable brutality but are not quite as culturally distinct and not in danger of elimination? According to many reports, Islamic State forces have massacred large numbers of Iraqi Christians, as well as Muslims whom they view as apostates. Are they less deserving of rescue? Do we have overly narrow criteria for the kind of slaughter that rises to the level of genocide and therefore warrants intervention?
One might also ask if narrowly targeted, strictly limited intervention is even possible. Our primary task in Iraq right now may be to save the Yazidis from imminent danger, but Obama has acknowledged that it is part of a long-term mission that also involves sending U.S. special operations personnel to advise the Iraqi military. Some experts, such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Philip Lohaus, say that these moves are meaningless without a larger strategy to restore stability in Iraq.
In practical terms, Lohaus is probably right. Yet such talk raises understandable concerns given the unpredictable situation in Iraq and the record of previous U.S. failures to manage that country's domestic situation. Indeed, one can reasonably argue that the chaos in Iraq is largely the result of wrongheaded U.S. policies in both Iraq and Syria, which have enabled the rise of the Islamic State group.
Humanitarian intervention can easily become a rationale for misguided war (and can be deliberately exploited as a pretext for military action). As we mark the World War I centennial, it is useful to remember that escalation of that war was aided by exaggerated reports of German atrocities in Belgium.
Still, in the end, it is the right call to say we will not stand by and watch hundreds of thousands of men, women and children die a terrible death when we can do something to stop it.
Like it or not, America's unique power implies unique responsibility. Yes, we should proceed carefully and minimize our entanglement, and act with other countries and international organizations whenever possible, but we should not foreclose unilateral action. Yes, such intervention will inevitably be selective, with other humanitarian crises not getting equal attention. But it is better to be inconsistently compassionate than consistently indifferent.