Is Fighting ISIS a Moral Dilemma? I Think Not.
by George Petrolekas
April 24, 2015
Casting the anti-ISIS mission as some sort of immoral misadventure, as it has by some, propagates a view that the world’s misfortunes are all the fault of the West and that liberty, democracy, freedom, and equality are inventions best kept to ourselves.
Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are well-worn examples exhorting us to do nothing. However, recanting those interventions does not draw in-depth lessons but rather caricatures to justify a 21st century version of splendid isolation. What might the world have looked like otherwise?
Had appeasement not reigned in the 1930s, would Fascism have gained root? Should we have abstained from fighting Hitler because Stalin was, for a time, our ally, or because the atrocities weren’t in our backyard? Would a contemporary South Korea under Kim-Jong-Il’s suzerainty have been a better moral outcome had we not fought the Korean War?
Historical caricatures forget that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and to say that the West gave rise to al-Qaeda is a distortion of history. The Mujahedeen resistance was not a western creation; Mujahedeen have fought infidels on religious grounds since at least 1829.
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban did indeed emerge out of Afghanistan but would have regardless of U.S. anti-Soviet support. If anything, western assistance in Afghanistan hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. Was that a good outcome? The Poles, the Hungarians, the East Germans and citizens of the Baltic States would likely agree it was.
After 9/11, would anyone argue that al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts should have been left untouched? If there are lessons from post 9/11 Afghanistan, it is that the West forgot everything it had learned from the reconstruction of post-Second World War Germany or Japan. There was no international cohesion remotely resembling the investment of those post-war efforts.
The other non-interventionist banner is Iraq. The U.S. invaded without justification, but in doing so also ignored the lessons in what have become known as the Powell-Weinberger doctrine. In short, when the use force is deemed necessary and appropriate, the following criteria should be considered: Are vital national interests involved? If so, decisive force with a clear intention of victory is required; political and military objectives must be clearly defined and resourced; and interventions should not occur without public support.
In 1990, the US, with a large coalition including Arab armies, intervened to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and a force of close to 500,000 was assembled. After a short air campaign, the ground war lasted a mere 100 hours. There was no mission creep or leap, and the exit strategy remarkably simple – come home when the objective is achieved. President Bush senior resisted all entreaties to continue the advance into Iraq proper, and the reconstruction of Kuwait, was left to Kuwait’s Gulf State members who had a vested interest in its success.
The difficulties experienced in 2003 Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya was because both Presidents Bush (Jr) and Obama tried to achieve victory on the cheap, without following those principles. Only a third of the forces used a decade earlier were sent, with a wider failure being to plan properly for the aftermath of invasion. Those errors were compounded by Rumsfeld’s policy of a post-Saddam catharsis. In no society can 400,000 people be put out of work without repercussions. That financial and social crisis helped cause the Sunni/Shia divide, and this was compounded by a fickle Iraqi PM, Nouri-al-Maliki who disregarded all chances for pluralism.
In Libya, a clear and limited UN mandate was usurped by political leaders who conflated what was possible with what they perceived as desirable. The most far reaching consequence is the distrust of Russia and China on the Security Council, which has impaired any effort to halt Assad or achieve UN sanction.
The list of IS atrocities is so long, one barely knows which to mention first – its beheadings, burnings, crucifixions, enslavements, or its inspiration of brutality.
Theirs are not simply war crimes, but crimes against humanity. There are other movements that are bad, but none of which approach the codified evil made possible by its pretensions to be a state. Its ideology can be defeated, but the precursor must be to eliminate the state structure that supports the ideology and whose very existence inspires others.
It is amoral to characterize Syria’s rulers as war criminals, mass murderers and ethnic cleansers while at the same time insisting it is immoral to enter Syria without permission to attack a group that is even more deadly. If this is what international law protects, it would be akin to asking the Nazi’s for permission to save Jews from Auschwitz.
If the coalition had not acted, we would have ISIS in undisputed control of most of Iraq and roughly half of Syria, with a $2 million a day revenue stream, and its military expansion unchecked. Kobani may have fallen, and Yazidis massacred on Mount Sinjar – at the time, no one argued these actions helped Assad. It is difficult to see how they argue so now.
It is simply amoral to argue that what we are doing is immoral.
George Petrolekas is a Fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and on the Board of the CDA Institute. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO and has been an advisor to senior NATO commanders.