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.