The Evil of Our Time

Originally published in American Enterprise Institute
June 12, 2015

Graphic by Diana Ingram, Bergman Group

The greatest evil of our time has taken root in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State (ISIS) is not a terrorist organization. It is an army of conquest that is destroying all traces of civilization in the lands it holds. It slaughters innocent civilians. It loots ancient sites for profit and demolishes what it cannot steal. It has declared its intent to conduct a genocide against all Shi’ite Muslims and follows through whenever it can. It has reestablished slavery and distributes captives as property among its troops and allies. It encourages its soldiers to rape, including through forced “marriage,” women who fall into its hands. It boasts of the most brutal methods of murdering hostages.

ISIS prides itself on these horrors. Describing its behavior after capturing thousands of Yazidis near Sinjar in Ninewah Province, Iraq, in 2014, ISIS explained,

After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shari’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums [religious taxes]. . . .The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the [polytheists] were sold by the Companions [of Mohammad] before them.

Human Rights Watch interviewed some women who managed to escape this nightmare: “Half, including two 12-year-old girls, said they had been raped — some multiple times and by several ISIS fighters. Nearly all of them said they had been forced into marriage; sold, in some cases a number of times; or given as ‘gifts.’” ISIS proudly posted the video of its fighters burning the Jordanian pilot to death. Its Libya branch more recently released a video of its soldiers executing scores of Ethiopian Christians — beheading some and shooting others in the back of the head. Comparing ISIS to the early Nazis is not hyperbole.

Statements this strong would seem to demand an all-out effort to destroy this evil, similar to the effort Americans once made to destroy Nazism. Such a large-scale effort may be necessary and appropriate, but that is not yet clear. The threat of ISIS is more complex and insidious than that of Nazism. It has already metastasized throughout the Middle East and is spreading into the US, Europe, and Australia as well. Reinvading Iraq or invading Syria is clearly not the right answer at this time. It is better to support Iraqis already fighting ISIS than to take possession of the fight ourselves, and conditions are not set in Syria, the region, or the United States to require or support a massive American intervention.  Sound strategy, indeed, would continue to search for all possible solutions to the dilemma that could avoid such a terrible option in any case.

But the set of possible solutions is dwindling rapidly. The West might have supported the secular opposition against Bashar al Assad when it arose in 2011, strengthening it both against Assad and against the al Qaeda–affiliated extremists who ultimately hijacked Syria’s Arab Spring. But the extremists have become militarily dominant among the Sunni Arab opposition in Syria, and there is not now a viable secular, or even moderate, opposition military force to support. Western inaction contributed mightily to the elimination of the only potentially good option we had in Syria, and now we must choose among very bad alternatives.

The story of Iraq is, in some respects, even more tragic for being more avoidable. Had the Obama administration succeeded in negotiating a deal to keep American forces in Iraq after 2011, the US would have been positioned to prevent ISIS from gaining the strength and ground that it did leading up to the fall of Mosul and could have prevented that disaster. American inaction in the last few weeks has allowed ISIS to seize control of Ramadi — an eminently avoidable calamity that has completely disarranged any hope of Iraqi forces retaking Mosul this year.

Yet many people still agree with Sarah Palin’s 2013 critique of the decision to arm Syrian opposition fighters (even to the extremely limited degree the administration proposed): “Let Allah sort it out.” Or, as George Will put it more elegantly recently, quoting John Quincy Adams: “America ‘goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.’” Despite Will’s and Palin’s assaults on the supposed activism of the current administration, the US has largely been a well-wisher in Syria, Iraq, and most of the rest of the Middle East for the past six years and certainly neither a champion nor a vindicator of freedom and independence.

Inaction, passivity, caution, and delay are, indeed, all attractive options to leaders tired of thinking about war and fearful of making mistakes for which they will be pilloried. Disengagement or limited engagement of US military forces exerts an almost irresistible pull on US policymakers in the wake of the experiences of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defeats of our partners on the ground fall from the headlines rapidly, but coverage of American forces in combat rarely fades, especially when they are taking casualties. And the defeats of allies can always be blamed on the allies: the Iraqis did not fight hard enough, the Syrian opposition cannot get its act together, Iraqi politics is the real obstacle, and so on. The defeats or failures of US forces land squarely at the feet of the commander in chief and his immediate subordinates, as well as those in Congress who supported their deployment.

And so we fall readily into the trap of saying, as President Obama did in May: “if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do it for them.” In one sense, that statement is self-evidently true: only Iraqis can find a long-term political and security solution for their state (if there is to be an Iraqi state). It is also obvious that political dysfunction in Iraq, especially under Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, was a key driver that set conditions for the return of ISIS to that country. It should go without saying that Assad’s minoritarian Alawite dictatorship laid the groundwork for the Syrian war (a fact that makes arguments in favor of supporting Assad as a “bulwark” against ISIS self-defeating).

But the idea that fighting ISIS is someone else’s problem is profoundly wrong. As General John Allen recently declared, “[ISIS] is not an Iraq or Syria problem; [it] is a regional problem with global implications.” ISIS is actively encouraging attacks in the West. It sits on a flow of thousands of Western citizens going into the fight, being trained, and returning to their homelands, radicalized and militarily effective. It poses such an existential threat to the Shi’a community worldwide that it is driving a global mobilization of both Sunni and Shi’a that will reach into Europe, the US, and Australia. There is no fact-based argument to be made anymore that ISIS can somehow be contained. It must be defeated, or it will bring the fight to our homes.

ISIS is our problem for an even more fundamental reason, however. Americans have believed in the moral obligation to prevent cataclysms like the Holocaust since the end of World War II. They have sometimes acted on that belief, as in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and sometimes refrained from acting and been shamed by their inaction, as in Rwanda. ISIS is a worse evil than any we have seen since the end of the Cold War and possibly longer. It is causing a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not seen since World War II. Millions of people have been driven from or fled their homes in Iraq and Syria (the UN recently reported that more than three million internally displaced people are in Iraq, with “hundreds of thousands” living in areas under ISIS control). The death toll of the wars in Iraq and Syria is unknown but was at more than 200,000 when the UN stopped counting a year ago, before the fall of Mosul.

America should not be observing this calamity from a distance, tepidly supporting local proxies to whom we hope to outsource the solution and arguing with ourselves about who is to blame for it all. If this nightmare continues to unfold, if ISIS manages to pursue its genocidal plans against the Shi’a, or if the regional Shi’a groups and states mobilize instead to fight a regional war against the Sunni, then we will all ultimately bear the blame for having failed to prevent another holocaust.

American strategy against ISIS does not need fine-tuning. It needs a fundamental change, starting with an acceptance of the fact that we must own this fight. The war before us is not a war of choice: ISIS is already at war with us. We can wait until ISIS manages a truly horrible attack in the US, as we have before, and then leap spasmodically to avenge ourselves, but that is surely the path of folly as well as amorality — amorality because Muslim lives matter, too. We can save hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Must we not try?

There is no easy answer to the question: “What should we do?” But we must find the hard answer soon and gird ourselves for the pain and effort it will require.

If not us, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?