There has been more debate among dagbloggers discussing ISIS, Syria, Iraq -- the Middle East -- than there has been in the Congress over the past couple of weeks. It is election season and folks are back home raising money and kissing babies.
The president is on the job still but today, with commendable candor, stated that the United States did not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS. Commendable yes, but not entirely reassuring when you hear it from the commander in chief. That is not the point of this piece.
I'm focused on two things right now: (1) our obligation to protect ethnic minorities in Iraq from wanton slaughter and potential genocide; and (2) the several hundred or more ISIS fighters from the US and Europe, and what that might mean right here on the American mainland. I've not really digested the second point about the western fighters, but I have spent quite a bit of the last couple of months thinking about whether the prevention of genocide is an American core value and a reason for employing our military assets.
I've been wading through Samantha Power's book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. It's a fascinating account of the efforts, led by a man named Raphael Lemkin, to almost single-handedly persuade the United Nations to pass an international treaty on the prevention of "genocide" (a term Lemkin himself came up with and then spent years working on forging a consensus with respect to what distinguishes genocide from other mass killings. Power also reminds us of the tireless efforts of the late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin to convince his fellow Senators to adopt and by bound by the UN Treaty. Senator Proxmire made a speech on the Senate floor to promote the genocide treaty on every single day the Senate was in session for nineteen consecutive years. It is a remarkable story of legislative persistence that we so rarely get to see anymore.
The bulk of Power's book surveys the consistent failure of the United States and other world powers to take any meaningful steps to prevent repeated genocides that have occurred around the world since the First World War. Beginning with the tepid response of the international community to the Armenian genocide that began in1915 (about which Hitler famously remarked that "nobody remembers the Armenians"), Power reviews the Holocaust in Europe, the mass starvation and slaughter of Biafarans in the Nigerian civil war, Bangladesh, Cambodia, the gassing of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s, Rwanda, Bosnia, the Congo, and Kosovo. Power's principal point in reviewing all of these events is that America failed to lift a finger to prevent any of these atrocities.
In short, Power rejects the notion that it is not our responsibility to police the world in order to prevent and respond to attempted genocide. But, of course, Power's view is hardly a universal one, and significantly, as much as we abhor the slaughter of innocents, many of us rest on solid moral ground in resisting the urge to become mired once again in another futile military campaign half-way around the world. For all intents and purposes, it would appear that the Obama Administration, in which Power serves as UN Ambassador, similarly subscribes to the view that it is not the responsibility of our military to respond to threats of genocide, wherever they may occur around the world.
I was reminded of another interesting bit of trivia in Power's book while reading Leon Wieselthier's most recent article in the New Republic. Wieselthier takes note of the series of caveats surrounding the president's various justifications for his authorization of limited air strikes in Iraq, and states that such statements are not consistent with the more aggressive posture that we have taken in fact. As stated by Wieselthier, "the president's actions have already exceeded the president's reasons."
Wieselthier, who supports a more active role to protect ethnic minorities in Iraq (and Syria) reminds us that the issue of America's role in preventing genocide has not been an issue that has divided the American people along party lines. Proxmire, for example, was no war hawk. And, as both Power and Wieselthier remind us, there was a time in the late 1970s when none other than the late-great Senator George McGovern, in the wake of the travesty that was Viet Nam, took a leading role in urging American military intervention in Cambodia to put an end to Pol Pot's slaughter of millions of Cambodians.
I fully agree with Wieselthier that McGovern's position is both instructive and worthy of our consideration presently, as we cannot avoid the reality that the ancient ethnic minorities in the Levant face extermination. Here's Wieselthier on McGovern (my bolds):
In recent weeks a number of anxious friends have reminded me, or maybe themselves, that no less an isolationist god than George McGovern proposed Western military action against the Khmer Rouge. I looked up his remarks, and found this splendid retort to the current imprisonment of American policy in the memory of the Iraq war: “To hate a needless and foolish intervention that served no good purpose does not give us the excuse to do nothing to stop mass murder in another time and place under vastly different circumstances.” or all I know, Country Joe and the Fish agreed with him, too. Anyway, who cares? We must do what is right even if it is not what is left.
That, my friends, is a quote from George McGovern, a man whose consistent opposition to the Viet Nam war is the way we remember and cherish him still.
I have reservations but have come to conclude, on humanitarian grounds alone, that we must prevent the slaughter of the ancient ethnic minorities in the Levant. I support this for a number of reasons, but in this piece I am purposely attempting to isolate the issue of genocide as a reason for action. I cannot help believing that, absent intervention, we will bear witness to yet another wholesale slaughter of populations, i.e. Genocide 101. I agree that we need to pressure our allies in Europe and the Middle East to pitch in and hopefully take the lead from us. I also am fully aware and I know that the lines between friend and enemy are ambiguous at best, and that such a reality makes it extraordinarily difficult to define what our ultimate objectives should be -- beyond preventing another genocide.
Were Samantha Power free to speak on her own behalf right now, I submit she would, without hesitation, use every waking moment to promote whatever intervention is needed to stop the ISIS slaughter. I understand the need to consider other factors surrounding any decision to step up our role. Still, it is my firm belief and conviction that it is both fair and just to ask ourselves 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 -- and right before our very eyes.
Congress won't discuss this because there is an election and most of our representatives, left and right, are political cowards and fundraisers, and nothing more. We, the People, should ponder where we stand on preventing genocide.
Bruce S. Levine
New York, New York