WASHINGTON — Last month, amid reports of fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rapidly advancing across Iraq toward the capital of Baghdad, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that 300 military advisers would be deployed to help stop the incursion.
“It is in our national security interest not to see an all-out civil war in Iraq,” Obama said during a June 19 meeting with reporters gathered in the White House briefing room, underscoring fears that the confrontation between ISIS fighters, who are Sunni, and the Iraq government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is Shiite, could explode into a regional sectarian war.
The administration’s decision to deploy the military advisers marked a sudden shift in tone from a president who had fulfilled his 2008 campaign pledge to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and had been sharply critical of his predecessor George W. Bush’s decision to approve the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The president admitted he was caught off guard by the Iraqi military’s failure to halt ISIS’ advance. And now, as a war-weary superpower reviews its options, U.S. lawmakers, foreign-policy experts and religious leaders are asking, once again: What should we do about Iraq?
While a New York Times/CBS News poll found that just over half the country approved of the president’s decision to send in U.S advisers, the debate in Washington will likely evaluate the strategic value of U.S. military strikes and the very real danger of Washington appearing to support a Shiite-led Iraqi government that is fast losing moral and political credibility.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did not formally respond to the news that Obama was sending military advisers. But the U.S. bishops believe that Washington has a responsibility to alleviate the crisis by offering humanitarian assistance to displaced Iraqis and by pressing for a more “inclusive” Iraqi government. Al-Maliki’s pro-Shiite policies are widely blamed for alienating the country’s Sunni population and thus fostering support for ISIS.
“The U.S.-led invasion and occupation unleashed both sectarian conflicts and extremism in Iraq, two tragic unintended consequences that have profound and continuing repercussions for the people of Iraq,” said Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, in a June 19 letter to Susan Rice, U.S. national security adviser.
“It is appropriate that the administration is urging political leaders in Iraq to form an inclusive government. For too long, large elements of Iraqi society have felt disenfranchised. It is critical that all ethnic and religious groups are represented at the table of governance, so that the common good of all is served,” Bishop Pates said.
Holy See’s Lead
During an interview with the Register, Bishop Pates noted that, in matters of foreign policy, the U.S. bishops follow the lead of the Holy See, which has pushed for multilateral responses to address global crises.
But Bishop Pates stressed that the U.S. holds a “special responsibility to bring Iraq to peace” because of the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. And while he would not comment on the plan to send in U.S. military advisers, he said the USCCB will continue to press for “diplomatic solutions.”
In June, the White House has ratcheted up its campaign for the establishment of a multi-sectarian Iraqi government that represents all Iraqis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled through the Middle East to build support for this plan, though foreign-policy experts say it could take months to pull off.
Back on Capitol Hill, GOP lawmakers criticized the White House for doing too little, too late, and for allowing ISIS to establish a beachhead in Iraq.
On June 24, Kerry acknowledged that ISIS’ rapid advances may force the U.S. to approve military strikes. But he said that any such action should be seen not as a show of support for al-Maliki, but as an attempt to stop ISIS in its tracks.
This situation has left many Americans — Catholics included — searching for answers.
Asked to provide a moral framework to address the question of U.S. intervention in Iraq, V. Bradley Lewis, an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America’s School of Philosophy, noted that traditional just-war teaching offers a useful approach for assessing the morality of U.S. military intervention in Iraq.
Just-war teaching provides an ethical framework for considering a range of questions that must be addressed before a nation responds to unlawful aggression by a foreign power. Such deliberations include scrutiny of the justification for war as well as the means used to achieve military objections. Just-war principles call on political leaders to exhaust all non-military options before considering military solutions, for example.
Pope John Paul II and many other Church leaders opposed the 2003 U.S. military intervention in Iraq, on the grounds that it did not meet the criteria for a just war.
Lewis cautioned, however, that 21st-century conflicts often pose special challenges to the application of just-war criteria.
“As a practical matter, we now face questions not so much about war vs. peace … but of the use of force in circumstances of neither war nor peace in any strict sense,” he said, in a reference to lengthy civil wars, open-ended conflicts fueled by terrorist groups and the advent of cyber warfare.
Like the U.S. bishops, Lewis believes that the legacy of U.S. intervention in Iraq provides the moral basis for some kind of effective U.S.-led action to mitigate the Iraq crisis.
According to Lewis, the classical just-war tradition points to the “establishment or re-establishment of real peace” as the aim of a morally justifiable military action.
Lewis noted that an ethical response in conformity with just-war criteria should direct military planners to respect “noncombatant immunity,” among other requirements.
However, Michael Novak, a U.S. author and public intellectual who backed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, is among those who oppose U.S. military action in Iraq, at least at this time.
Novak argued that the U.S. should not “take sides” in an explosive sectarian conflict that has spread from the Syrian civil war to Iraq, with vast humanitarian, political and geopolitical implications.
“We now have open, bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, and we can’t get into the middle of that,” Novak told the Register, though he supports humanitarian assistance.
Novak also contends that Obama should have kept a limited number of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. And looking back on his fateful decision to support the 2003 invasion, Novak admitted, “I made one big mistake. I thought the U.S would remain faithful to Iraqis who joined us” and embrace the transition from the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein to the establishment of a nascent democracy.
“I thought we would stay with them through our lifetime and our children’s lifetime, as the U.S. did in Korea” and elsewhere, he said.
In 2011, Obama asserted that the U.S. had successfully completed its mission in Iraq and that the country was stable. Three years later, the administration has expressed fears that ISIS could accumulate sufficient military and financial power to create a safe haven for terrorist groups plotting to attack the United States.
John Lenczowski, the president of the Institute of World Politics, a Washington-based graduate program, contends the U.S. does have a “moral and strategic responsibility to do something to prevent the situation in Iraq from getting worse,” and he applauds the deployment of U.S. military advisers as a “prudent” response.
The present crisis in Iraq, Lenczowski told the Register, shows why a “policy of restraint concerning military intervention” should define U.S. foreign policy. But he emphasized that such restraint “must be accompanied by the maintenance and augmentation of armed forces” — a tough goal, as recent budget negotiations have resulted in major cuts in military spending.
Lenczowski also argues that the U.S. should explore “non-military ways of being engaged in this process,” like cultural diplomacy and information policy that focus on “the war of ideas.”
“We have treated the global war on terror as principally a military and intelligence problem,” he noted, when the U.S. should have engaged cultural values and beliefs that have made it difficult for Iraq to sustain a rule of law and resist extreme religious doctrines.
Indeed, as Obama weighs options, experts suggest that the establishment of his stated goal — the formation of a multi-sectarian government — cannot depend on military action alone.
Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, said that if Iraq can be stabilized, the White House should give more priority to the role of religious freedom in the formation of a stable, multi-sectarian government.
“It is tempting to wonder what might have happened had the United States, over the last decade, made an urgent priority of convincing Iraqi Shiite and Sunni elites of the need for religious freedom, not only as a necessary element of stable democracy and economic development, but also as a non-military means of undermining Islamist terrorism,” Farr told the Register.
For now, however, the security threat posed by ISIS’ strategic victories will keep the debate on Capitol Hill focused on U.S. military options — and the need for a reluctant president, and a war-weary nation, to embrace a new mission in Iraq with unpredictable consequences.
More broadly, some experts argue that the question of “What to do about Iraq?” touches on the nation’s increasingly skeptical view of its ability and capacity to function as the “world’s policeman.”
In an essay in The New Republic, the historian and author Robert Kagan argued that the lack of resolution to U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq should not lead Americans to drift into a sense of “futility” regarding the exercise of U.S. power around the globe, and thus turn inward.
“Unless Americans can be led back to an understanding of their enlightened self-interest, to see again how their fate is entangled with that of the world,” Kagan argued — pointing to America’s irreplaceable if imperfect global role since the Second World War — “then the prospects for a peaceful 21st century in which Americans and American principles can thrive will be bleak.”