When I heard that American planes were in the air, I felt joy. At last we were coming to the rescue of men, women, and children who were, absent us, doomed. Rescue is not a burden, it is an honor. Regarding the Yazidis at the summit of Sinjar, our power was our privilege. It also mattered for my rejoicing that the enemies of these victims were America’s enemies, and that they were—which critic of the application of a moral vocabulary to international affairs would deny the precision of the term in this case?—evil. The black flag of the caliphate disturbs even the suavity of the realists. We are not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. The monsters are there and they are in search of us, and of many others.
But are we going abroad to destroy them? When the president authorized the use of American force to deliver the Yazidis and protect the Americans in Irbil and Baghdad, I reflected that he should be congratulated for behaving not entirely like himself. I hoped also that he would take lessons from the efficacy of our limited actions: The innocents were saved, the Mosul Dam was secured, the Fuhrer of the Islamic State fled to Syria. We could not have accomplished this without the Kurds and the Iraqis on the ground, but they could not have accomplished this without the Americans in the air. Onward, then? Not so fast. The president is still behaving a lot like himself. His announcement of the authorization for the air drops and the air strikes was so riddled with qualifications and circumscriptions, so casuistic, so replete with assurances about his own lack of enthusiasm for his course of action, that it sounded almost like an apology for what he was authorizing. He intended to engage the effects, not the causes. The important thing was that this act of humanitarian intervention not be mistaken for an act of humanitarian intervention. Rand Paul and the liberals were to be given no occasion for panic.
But the president’s actions have already exceeded the president’s reasons. Most of the American air strikes in northern Iraq have had the proper objective of protecting the dam. Is this because Americans might get wet if the dam were exploded? We must protect American personnel, but also we must be serious. The battle against the Islamic State is justified on large strategic and moral grounds. Crucifixions, beheadings, rapes, and enslavements; local, regional, and global threats of terrorism, all of them credible (and vouched for in ominous language by many senior officials of the administration); the deranged overturning of the whole region—is all this to be merely contained? In recent weeks a number of anxious friends have reminded me, or maybe themselves, that no less an isolationist god than George McGovern proposed Western military action against the Khmer Rouge. I looked up his remarks, and found this splendid retort to the current imprisonment of American policy in the memory of the Iraq war: “To hate a needless and foolish intervention that served no good purpose does not give us the excuse to do nothing to stop mass murder in another time and place under vastly different circumstances.” For all I know, Country Joe and the Fish agreed with him, too. Anyway, who cares? We must do what is right even if it is not what is left.
The problem is that treating the causes and not the effects, deploying American power for the purpose of destroying ISIS, returns us, analytically and operationally, to the source of the horror, which is Syria. Except, of course, that we cannot be returned operationally to Syria: We never lifted a finger there, where more than 200,000 people were killed, and many millions were displaced inside and outside the country, and ISIS grew into the Islamic State. Our inaction in Syria was an epic blunder whose consequences are now afflicting us. General Dempsey has rudely put the question: “Can they [ISIS] be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no.” And so it came to pass that Ben Rhodes, the White House barometer, started talking tough—“if you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you”—and suggested that American action is “not going to be restricted by borders.” This may have been too much, since a few days later one was reading reports about the paucity of American intelligence on Syria and the enormous difficulty it poses for American military planners. But then one read that the president has ordered manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Syria. It is all gray and it is all grim.
Perhaps the Assad regime, which is the dirtiest regime in the world, and is in significant measure responsible for ISIS’s flourishing, will find the same use for ISIS that it found for its chemical weapons, and nullify American disgust in a crisis. There is no rock bottom, after all, for realists. The metrics for lesser evils are very, very fine. Will we make an ally of Assad? The prospect is sickening, but we have been sickened before. The dogmas about the moderate rebels are certainly still in place. The president mocks their role in the conflict as a “fantasy” and likes to dismiss them as “farmers, dentists, and folks who have never fought before,” as if the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought by Navy SEALs.
Barack Obama believed that he could preside over the end of humanitarian intervention, which he called simply war. He was momentously wrong. (The French proved it in Mali.) History, whose course he thought he knew, has trapped him. Obama can no longer get away with his routine as the uplifting realist. There is no such being. The administration’s preference for inconsequential action, or tardy action, or grudging action, or no action at all has helped to create a hideous nightmare. Since we did nothing for Syria two and three years ago, we must do something about Syria now. There is no diplomatic solution for the Islamic State. A speech will not cut it. I imagine that there is a pit in the president’s stomach.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.