WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has said the U.S. military intervention in Iraq this week is motivated in part by an urgent need to stop genocide of the Yazidi, members of an obscure religious sect who are stranded on a mountain in Iraq, dying of thirst and hunger. But the assertion is filled with contradictions.
Why did the administration decide to take military action now, but previously didn’t act to stop the killing of Shiites and Christians in the same region, or the slaughter of civilians in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo or other places around the world? The answer may have more to do with U.S. strategic interests and geopolitics than ethics.
“What’s driving it is the sense that letting (the Islamic State) burn itself out is not working,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While the Yazidis’ plight is desperate, Alterman said he could imagine a number of other places in the world where the same number of people being threatened would not provoke a direct U.S. military response.
But the deteriorating situation in northern Iraq – and the inability of America’s allies to constrain the Islamic State – pushed the administration to act.
“It’s not the number of Yazidis threatened,” Alterman said. “It is the fact that (Islamic State) seems to be on a roll, and the roll started in Syria and rolled into Iraq, and it shows no sign of slowing down.”
In his speech Thursday announcing airstrikes and aid drops in Iraq, Obama used the words “potential genocide” to describe the plight of the Yazidis, thousands of whom have been driven from their homes in northern Iraq. Militants with the Islamic State reportedly gave them a stark choice: Convert to Islam or die.
The president made it clear he believes the United States can’t intervene in every crisis in the world, but he said the U.S. must act immediately to save the Yazidis.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain – with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help – in this case, a request from the Iraqi government – and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said.
Obama’s use of the word genocide – which was echoed on Thursday by Secretary of State John Kerry – is extremely unusual, said Jonas Claes, a conflict analyst for the United States Institute of Peace.
Claes couldn’t recall any other time during Obama’s presidency when he had used the term to describe current events.
Usually presidents dance around the word because it implies a legal responsibility to act, Claes said.
The 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention makes genocide an international crime and defines it as an intentional act to destroy a national, racial, religious or ethnic group.
The last time the term genocide was mentioned in relation to a current event by the U.S. government was in 2004, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that “genocide had been committed in Darfur.”
Powell was referring to the killing and raping of Darfuri villagers in western Sudan by Sudanese forces and Arab militias.
Claes said Obama’s use of the term on Thursday was deliberate and likely influenced by three factors that tipped the balance in favor of intervention in Iraq. Obama alluded to all three in his remarks Thursday.
The first factor is consent: Obama said the Iraqi government had asked the U.S. to act.
It’s much easier to stage an intervention in another country if the government of a country where atrocities are taking place requests U.S. help, than if the government is actually committing the atrocities, as is the case in Syria, Claes said.
The second factor is strategic value: The U.S. has invested thousands of lives and billions of dollars in Iraq, and U.S. personnel still are based there.
“If the same were to happen right now in say a Madagascar or Malawi, the likeliness of an intervention would be much less,” Claes said.
The third factor is geopolitical dynamics, or ties between a regime and powerful players in the area. This is another reason why an intervention is more likely in Iraq than in Syria, where intervention would be complicated by the regime’s ties to Russia and Iran, Claes said.
Obama used similar reasoning to justify airstrikes in Libya in 2011, although in that case he described the threat in Benghazi as a potential massacre rather than a genocide.
Then earlier this year, when the Syrian regime used poison gas against its own civilians, Obama settled on a diplomatic approach instead of military reprisals.
Now, in Iraq, airstrikes are underway.
On a case-by-case basis, the president’s decision-making on humanitarian intervention can seem haphazard or inconsistent, Claes said, but it’s actually just pragmatic.
“In an ideal world all these considerations would be subordinate to the urgency and gravity of a humanitarian crisis, but a world in which the risk of atrocities automatically triggers a response is still far off,” Claes said. “Double standards are just an unpleasant reality that come from the nature of international politics.”