These are portentous days in the global village. Having fiddled while Mosul burned, Barack Obama’s studied foreign policy passivity was finally shattered by TV scenes of tens of thousands of Yazidi sect members fleeing genocide at the hands of advancing Islamic State murderers marching through their villages towards the key Kurdish town of Irbil.
Dramatic and arresting media images of the plight of the stranded Yazidis, starving refugees exposed on a mountain-top to 40-degree C. days and cold nights, circled the globe. Having steadfastly refused to commit anything but a few US military observers in aid of hard-pressed Iraqi (and Kurdish) former allies, Obama (and his UN Ambassador Susan Powers) now dusted off their “responsibility to protect” doctrine, suppressed since having been invoked to bring down (from behind, of course), Libya’s Moammar Khaddafi.
That the nearby Kurdish city of Irbil, threatened by the Islamic State’s rapid advance, boasts a large American diplomatic station and a contingent of American military “observers”, may also have had something to do with Obama’s sudden decision to bring airlifted supplies to bear on the Yazidis, and F-18 bombs and rockets on the Islamic State forces approaching Irbil. Another possible embassy destruction stirred repressed memories of the Benghazi disaster–a second, and larger, disaster could well sink Obama’s already plummeting approval ratings, and this just before the oncoming Congressional elections.
We will see whether approaching disaster in Iraq results in a more forward policy insofar as military aid is concerned. (One should recall, though, that Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war greased the ways for his 2008 nomination and election, and that having made good on his pledge to end the US involvement there, returning to it again now would be not only a humiliating admission of error, but would also risk alienating, as the pundits put it, his “base”.)
Insofar as humanitarian and/or politically calculated interventions are concerned, however, Obama’s track record is not a good indicator. In Syria, four years, 200,000 deaths, and seven million internal and external refugees later, the U.S. has yet to support those “moderate” rebels against Bashar Assad to whom it had initially pledged its help.
And we all recall the disappearance of Obama’s poison-gas “redline” when push came to shove in Syria. (But precisely why millions of dying and starving Syrians, let alone the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed and displaced Christian victims of various Islamist murderers, have—unlike the Yazidis and Kurds–not elicited Obama’s concern remains a mystery.)
The larger question is whether this latest Iraqi crisis entail a profound reversal of American foreign policy, within and without the region? Will Obama, suddenly disappointing his eco-pacifist “base”, end his second term as an embattled wartime leader, coming to the aid of the “good guys” in Iraq (and perhaps in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya (are there any good guys there?), and—for that matter–in Egypt and even in the Hamas war on Israel? (Will he finally now act decisively to destroy the genocidal, antisemitic Iranian mullahs’ nuclear capability (let alone check Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, and–after the “re-set”’s failure—check Vladimir Putin’s appetite for ever-larger chunks of Ukraine and the other “near abroad” ex-Soviet territories)?
We will see. But if the possible fall of Irbil as well as dying Yazidis have finally focussed Obama’s attention (resolve?), a Kurdish peshmerga defeat there, despite the current US carrier-based sorties, would open the way to Islamic State’s drive south on to Baghad. And as earlier noted, an attack there, on the huge Green Zone American diplomatic embassy, would make Irbil, let alone Benghazi, look like child’s play.
(The recent removal of al-Maliki in Baghdad, and his replacement as Prime Minister by a more conciliatory Shiite politician amenable to American pressures, may yet rally Sunnis and Kurds to a central Shiite-led Iraqi government, enabling it to stand and fight against the Islamic State jihadis. But this ploy [shades of desperate US policy flip-flops in Vietnam!] may well fail, paradoxically leaving Obama only one way to avoid outright and final defeat: replicating the reviled George Bush’s “surge” strategy.)
History, and political necessity, have produced strange and unexpected political turn-abouts before. FDR in the 1940 elections assured a still-pacifist American electorate of his peace-seeking intentions; a year later, he was the indomitable leader of the two-front crusade against the German Nazi-Italian Fascist-Japanese Axis. Richard Nixon, the Cold War anti-communist, engineered the American recognition of “Red” China. And the inexorable advance of America’s enemies, as the Obama-led US slept for the last six years, may result in a similar, unexpected transformation.
Then again, it may not: the current shift may prove only a spasmodic fizzle, or it may simply be too little, too late. Still, what goes around tends to come around, necessity breeds strange bedfellows and, as the late Leon Trotsky (he should have known) said, “You may not care about History, but it cares about you”. Boots on the ground again? a revival of American global leadership? We’ll see—and keep your eyes peeled: after all, the survival of Western civilization just may be at stake.
(Frederick Krantz is Director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research [Montreal & Toronto] and Professor of History in Liberal Arts College, Concordia University)