As ISIS pursues its genocidal dreams in Syria and Iraq, Bruce Levine asks, "whether we as human beings living in the most powerful nation in the world can stand by yet again and do nothing -- as thousands or tens of thousands of innocent human beings are slaughtered."
The question conceals a heavy premise: that we have the power to stop the slaughter if we choose to exercise it.
I do not deny the premise, at least in principle. If we unleash our full military and economic might, we can surely defeat ISIS forces and build stable, peaceful states in Iraq and Syria. But full mobilization and massive nation-building projects are not realistic options in the current political environment. We may muster the will for limited military operations in Iraq, but we're unwilling to do what it takes to succeed. Consequently, our efforts to stop the slaughter are doomed to fail and may make the situation even worse.
Let me begin with a personal analogy. I used to wrestle when I was a kid. In junior high, I was awful; I lost nearly every match. When I reached high school, my new coach gave me some sage advice. When you try to take someone down, he told me, don't go in half-assed. If you're cautious, you'll never get past your opponent's defenses. Heeding his counsel, I started hurling myself at my opponent full-speed. I was fast, and I could usually take him down on the first try. That year, I won nearly every match.
One of the problems with America's modern military adventures is that we invariably go in half-assed. Fearful of losing American soldiers, killing foreign civilians, and spending limited resources, we go in too late with too few and pull out too fast.
Our concern for lost lives and wasted resources are very real and very important, but they undermine are best (and worst) intentions. The last time we unleashed our full military strength was 1941. Our victory over the Axis powers and the subsequent Marshall Plan testify to what we can achieve when we commit ourselves. Since then, we've been far more cautious. Deceiving ourselves with fantasies of easy victory against weaker opponents, we keep pursuing half-efforts and keep getting burned--Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and so on. Too often, we leave the field in a worse state than when we started.
I fear that the current crisis in Iraq is no different. While I agree that we have a moral imperative to stop genocide when we have the power, I don't believe that we can save the world with airstrikes, drones, special ops, or limited ground troops. To succeed, it's not enough to temporarily stop ISIS's advance. The instability and violence in Syria and Iraq, not to mention Libya and other warzones, will continue regardless of whether ISIS captures Baghdad, and the dead will continue to pile up.
Frankly, we're simply not prepared to make the necessary investment at this point. It would require an extended military presence and state-building effort much bigger than the Iraq wars, 1 or 2. If we're unwilling to make that investment, I believe that limited military intervention is likely to waste more lives and more money while accomplishing little more than to set the stage for yet another brutal civil war.
So while we are capable of stopping the slaughter in principle, we cannot do so in practice. As heart-wrenching as it is to stand by while ISIS slaughters every imagined "infidel" in reach, I believe we must seriously reassess our approach to global intervention. Moral imperative is not sufficient. Military capacity is not sufficient. We must also be willing to invest whatever it takes to achieve a comprehensive military victory and successful reconstruction.