First, let me stipulate that the 53 clergy, theologians, and religious sisters who sent a letter to President Obama August 27 urging exclusively peaceful responses to the ISIS threat in the Middle East have every right to express their opinions. But those disagreeing have an equal right to point out that the letter offers zero useful advice to the U.S. government. At least as important, its only conceivable merit is the reminder it provides of the utter irrelevance at best, and potential dangers at worst, of simplistically applying to the Hobbesian world of international affairs moral precepts that are praiseworthy and vital to individuals and to successful domestic societies.
Second, let me stipulate that I don’t regard moral or humanitarian outrages as the main or even significant reasons for opposing ISIS militarily. My overriding concern – and the concern that should be paramount in the minds of U.S. government officials – is eliminating the threat to U.S. national security posed by ISIS before it produces an attack on American territory.
What’s so pathetic and ludicrous, though, about the August 27 letter is that it fails so completely even on moral grounds. Its recommendations can’t possibly achieve their humanitarian goals before ISIS adds at least tens of thousands of civilians to its list of victims – including small children. In other words, even if you believe in the prospects of “long-term investments in supporting inclusive governance and diplomacy, nonviolent resistance, sustainable development, and community-level peace and reconciliation” in the Middle East, there can be no doubt that these initiatives will do nothing to prevent more ISIS atrocities for years at best.
And positively counterproductive from a moral standpoint is the letter’s proposal for an arms embargo “on all parties to the conflict.” One rationale is at least grounded in recognizable rationality: “U.S. arms and military assistance to the government forces and ethnic militias in Iraq, in addition to arming Syrian rebel groups, have only fueled the carnage, in part due to weapons intended for one group being taken and used by others. All armed parties have been accused of committing gross violations of human rights.”
But the signatories also believe that military force can be successfully replaced by “community-based nonviolent resistance strategies to transform the conflict and meet the deeper need and grievances of all parties. For example, experts have suggested strategies such as parallel institutions, dispersed disruptions, and economic non-cooperation.” Of course, the only conceivable result of this strategy is making the signatories and their supporters feel good about themselves. And while they’re patting themselves on the back, ISIS will continue murdering, raping, torturing, and enslaving.
At the root of this ethical quackery, however, is an assumption shared by far too many to the left of center, in particular, who do ostensibly live and work in the fallen, earthly realm of public policy: that all of the world’s bad actors are motivated by concrete, fundamentally justifiable grievances whose at least partial satisfaction will pacify them. Thus the signatories’ recommendation that Washington prevent the further “accumulation of grievances that contribute to the global justification for the Islamic State’s existence among its supporters.” Prominent on this list are “decades of U.S. political and military intervention” in the Middle East that “have significantly contributed to the current crisis in Iraq.”
Given clear American bungling in the region, these claims might be plausible – except they can’t possibly explain ISIS’ savagery toward women and children, including those that are Moslem. I have no idea whether this behavior meets standard definitions of “evil,” or whatever other religious or philosophical labels might apply. What’s indisputable is that it can’t reflect any agenda remotely acceptable to anyone believing that American statecraft should seek a better world – as opposed to the narrower goal of defending purely American interests.
Ironically, there is a U.S. anti-ISIS strategy that could obviate the need for American military actions at least in the long term. But at least one of its pillars – establishing genuinely secure U.S. borders to reduce greatly the odds of ISIS fighters and other terrorists accessing the American homeland – probably wouldn’t pass muster with the 53 August 27 signatories, either. Combined with the other above objections, it’s more than enough to make you wonder. Is their bottom line preventing war and violence? Or is it preening?