Getting old has its positive and negative aspects. Positively, there is a growing sense of wisdom because of having been witness to many events over time. Negatively, in contradiction to the growing wisdom, there is the realization that certain things keep repeating themselves, such as the United States trying to save the world or trying to impose its vision in faraway places that may not be open to the same vision.
President Obama has commanded limited air strikes against Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq as well as sending humanitarian aid to those fleeing their onslaught. A sense of relief welcomes the president’s two initiatives except for those who are anxious that once again the United States will get bogged down in Iraq after having withdrawn its troops in 2011. The humanitarian action can only be applauded, but it is separate from the anti-terrorism initiative.
Tragedy is knowing what will happen and being unable to stop it. In a recent news conference, President Obama repeated that the solution in Iraq was a multi-ethnic government inclusive of all political and religious factions. That is the ideal, the liberal vision of what a society should be. It is what the Swiss have been able to accomplish over 700 years.
What President Obama did not explain was how limited bombing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would lead to a multi-ethnic government in Iraq that would be functional. The United States has been at war in Iraq for over 20 years, four consecutive presidents have bombed the country, billions of dollars have been spent, and tens of thousands of civilians have died. Obama did say that the ultimate solution in Iraq is political, not military. But the ideal is very far down the road; he did not articulate a specific roadmap.
The famous question during the Vietnam War was: How many troops and for how long? Mr. Obama has said that although the bombings will be limited, they may last for an extended period of time. As I understand his strategy, he is trying to weaken or eliminate ISIS, or at least stop them from overrunning the Kurdish capital of Erbil which would lead to an even greater humanitarian crisis and allow them to achieve their goal of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Again, Obama’s strategy is praiseworthy in principle, but historically very weak.
In a wonderful cartoon in the International New York Times of 9 August, Patrick Chappatte showed President Obama ordering the bombing of Iraq with George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney asking the president if he needed any advice. If Patrick were older, he might have shown Robert McNamara and his generals trying to figure out how to win the war in Vietnam. The policy of bombing in the name of liberalism against a smaller, well-organized and motivated force seems to have surprising support despite having been shown to be ineffective if not counterproductive.
Followers of the Islamic State are fundamental terrorists who impose their ideology by the sword. If they are allowed to succeed, they will impose their caliphate by mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing if not genocide. ISIS is anathema to western values in its aims and means. Should we stand by and watch them impose by force their illiberal doctrine?
But we mustn’t confuse the two initiatives of President Obama. The humanitarian action, giving food and shelter to the displaced on the mountains of Sinjar, goes without saying. It is the relationship between the humanitarian and political that is tricky. Henry Dunant was a humanitarian in the traditional sense; his actions and the beginning of the ICRC clearly separated the humanitarian from the political. He never envisioned solving the root causes of war; for him war was inevitable. In the situation in Iraq, humanitarian relief should not be confused with nation-building. The former is punctual, limited in time and place. The latter is much more complicated. Obama said the airstrikes could go on for several months, that it was “a long-term project”.
The West has tried several forms of nation-building. They have not been successful. Faced with continuing failure in Iraq to establish a functional, multi-ethnic government, there is no reason to believe it will work this time. Weakening or defeating the Islamic State is no guarantee of creating a liberal society/government in Iraq.
Losing naïve optimism is the beginning of gaining wisdom and one of the advantages of old age. Mr. Obama turned 53 on 4 August; I will be 68 later this month.
Daniel Warner is an American-Swiss political scientist. This article appeared on his blog for la Tribune de Genève at tdg.ch/blogs.