I suppose it was inevitable we'd take action against ISIL, the latest crop of radicals running wild in the Middle East. Vile as ISIL's actions are, though, I still think intervening is a mistake. Certainly the arguments in favor of taking them on aren't very convincing.
We have to fight because ISIL are "unique in their brutality."
That was one of the arguments Obama made in his recent speech. And brutal the group certainly is, but unique? Murder, genocide, religious oppression, the killing of innocents, they're par for the human course. Claiming we're facing some uniquely monstrous adversary is an old tactic in justifying war (remember when Saddam's soldiers were supposedly throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators to die?), but that doesn't make it a good one.
We have to fight them over there so they don't attack us over here.
Obama says they're "terrorists who threaten us," and other warhawks are even more emphatic. Sen. Marco Rubio says ISIL may have "thousands of people with the capacity of entering the United States quickly and easily" so we need to take them out ASAP. Pundit William Kristol has also claimed they're a deadly threat.
"Threat" would seem to be something of an exaggeration. The USSR was a threat; terrorists, as John Kerry once put it, are a police matter. Yes, ISIL might take action against us someday, but they're no more a "threat" to the country than Timothy McVeigh, the Weather Underground or any of our homegrown terrorists.
Screeching about the terrifying threat we face is another old tactic. Kristol used it just 12 years ago, when he claimed the threat from Iraq was growing every day, and we needed to go in before Saddam murdered us all in our beds. He was, of course, completely wrong. I have little faith he or Obama has gotten it right this time.
As for Rubio's theory, bombing the Middle East isn't an effective way to stop anyone slipping across our border. Terrorism isn't war; individual terrorists don't have to engage in dogfights with US bombers to get past our defenses. They just get up and start walking.
ISIL isn't a threat to America, it's a threat to civilization!
NYT pundit David Brooks argues that ISIL and Russia's Putin are "threats to our civilizational order." They ignore national borders, which have been sacrosanct for centuries (Brooks is completely wrong on that). And ISIL is imposing religion onto people, which nobody else has ever done. If we let ISIL and Putin act with impunity, other evil-doers will follows the same tactics and everything will fall apart.
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This is an absolutely brilliant argument, at least for a pundit who thinks war is morally uplifting (Brooks considered moral uplift a wonderful upside of 9/11). By this logic everything, everywhere requires US intervention ... except of course when it doesn't. Brooks is apparently fine with Saudi Arabia imposing religion on its people, and he's not calling for us to liberate Tibet from Chinese occupation. For that matter, he thought America ignoring national borders and invading Iraq was a wonderful idea. Frankly I don't think his foreign policy views are terribly well thought out. To put it mildly.
We need to go in because ISIL are Muslims and Muslims have to die.
That's the view of religious conservative Gary Cass, writing in Charisma magazine (which yanked the article from the website after blowback): "Every mosque in America is conspiring to kill you and yours ... we cannot coexist" and deporting, sterilizing or converting Muslims won't work. The only solution is "Christian just war"; ISIL, presumably, will be just the beginning.
This argument is breathtaking in its bullshit. The history of Christian pogroms against Jews and Catholic and Protestant wars against each other shows Islam has no monopoly on religious violence or intolerance. Hell, Cass's own arguments prove that (if a Muslim had written the same piece about Christians, Cass would be using it as proof how evil they are).
The carnage and oppression are horrific. We need to help people.
Obama has made this argument too, and it's one I'm sympathetic to. But not so sympathetic I agree with it. As the war journalist David Rieff has pointed out, humanitarian intervention is often a contradiction in terms: going in and blowing shit up is never purely humanitarian because it kills people, many of them innocent. Tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq died thanks to our efforts to liberate them. Dozens of people at weddings and funerals have been killed in drone strikes so that we can free them from terrorism.
I doubt we'll do any better this time. Superman or Green Lantern could undoubtedly take out ISIL without jeopardizing any innocents, but we don't live in a comic-book universe. We live in the real world, where our armed forces can't help killing bystanders. War just isn't a precision instrument.
And in this case, I think it's the wrong instrument.