CANBERRA – US President Barack Obama deserves unconditional support for his decision to use military force to protect the persecuted Yezidi minority from threatened genocide by marauding Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Iraq. The United States’ action is completely consistent with the principles of the international responsibility to protect (R2P) people at risk of mass-atrocity crimes, which was embraced unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. The US military intervention touches all of R2P’s bases of legality, legitimacy, and likely effectiveness in meeting its immediate objectives.
In contrast to the original military intervention in Iraq – which touched none of these bases – the current US action, though lacking Security Council authorization, is being taken at the request of the Iraqi government, so there is no question of a breach of international law. And it would clearly seem to satisfy the moral or prudential criteria for the use of military force, which, though not yet formally adopted by the United Nations or anyone else, have been the subject of much international debate and acceptance over the last decade.
The criteria of legitimacy are that the atrocities occurring or feared are sufficiently serious to justify, prima facie, a military response; that the response has a primarily humanitarian motive; that no lesser response is likely to be effective in halting or averting the harm; that the proposed response is proportional to the threat; and that the intervention will do more good than harm.
The available evidence is that the many thousands of men, women, and children who have sought refuge in the Sinjar mountain range of northern Iraq are indeed at risk. They face death not only from starvation and exposure, but also from genocidal slaughter by the rapidly advancing IS forces, who regard the Yazidis as apostates and have already perpetrated atrocities unrivaled in their savagery. The US motive in mobilizing air power to protect them is unquestionably humanitarian. It is clear that no lesser measures will be sufficient, and the only question about proportionality that arises is whether the air strikes and supply drops will do too little, rather than too much, to address the emergency.
Unlike the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, it cannot be argued that external military intervention will be likely to cause more harm than good. It should be at least as effective in protecting the Yezidis (and Kurds and others in nearby Erbil) as was the intervention in Libya in 2011 to stop the threatened massacre by Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces of the people of Benghazi.
Whether it will contribute to reversing the major gains already made by IS forces in northern Iraq, and to re-establishing the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state, is a different question. As the Obama administration has made clear, that will depend, above all, on whether the disastrously divisive leadership of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia prime minister, gives way to a more inclusive regime, and whether, in that context, the ineffectual Iraqi army can regroup and rally.
Though some conservative American voices are already calling for more to be done, no compelling case can be made in the US, Europe, or my own country for sacrificing further blood and treasure in an effort to prop up a regime so demonstrably unable and unwilling to help itself hold the country together. As I have argued previously, the only possible justification – moral, political, or military – for renewed external military intervention in Iraq is to meet the international responsibility to protect victims, or potential victims, of mass atrocities.
It is a little frustrating to those of us who have worked to embed R2P principles in international policy and practice that US leaders remain reluctant to use that terminology – a reluctance that partly reflects the perceived domestic political risk in relying on anything that comes from the UN. But it would be churlish to complain when, as here, Obama talks of “upholding international norms,” and in practice moves to do exactly what the R2P norm requires.
There are also, of course, American voices – like that of the foreign-policy realist Stephen Walt – arguing for less to be done, on the ground that US interests are insufficiently engaged to justify any military intervention, however limited. But this is to adopt a narrowly traditional view of the national interest – focusing only on direct security and economic advantage – and to ignore a third dimension, reputational advantage, which increasingly determines the extent to which countries respect and relate to one another. It is in every country’s national interest to be – and to be seen as – a good international citizen.
There can be no better demonstration of good international citizenship than a country’s willingness to act when it has the capacity to prevent or avert a mass atrocity crime. Obama has recently been criticized, in the context of his attitude toward the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, as being “cerebral in part of the world that’s looking for the visceral.” His response to the plight of the Yezidis in Iraq has been both cerebral and visceral, and both America and the world are better for it.