This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.
Within the past month, America and its coalition allies have been making sure to bomb the living daylights out of ISIL militants in Iraq and Syria. This particular conflict even seems to spark the righteous fury of formerly anti-war icons like Rand Paul, who now favors air strikes against the terrorist group despite previously opposing them.
There are two questions to be addressed with respect to foreign military intervention. The first question is whether it is justified. The second question is, if it is justified, to what extent should military action be taken. I would like to address the second question first.
The Obama administration has assured the American people that there will be no American combat troops in Iraq and Syria. Local Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian forces will take the brunt of the front-line fire, while American armed forces will only engage in air strikes against the Islamic State.
I’ve always regarded air-strikes-only as an absurd policy. It is a politically convenient way for politicians to claim they are doing something, while ensuring casualty figures don’t come back to haunt them. As a matter of principle, countries should only engage in conflicts they are prepared to win. Airstrikes cannot win wars, prop up a government or hold ground. If military action is justified, a country must either attack with sufficient force to defeat its enemy, or it should do nothing. Anything in between implies a reluctance to succeed, and amounts to tacit approval of the defeat of sane, democratic opposition by murderous, theocratic lunatics.
Since there seems to be bipartisan consensus that military intervention is justified in this instance, the American government must explain why it isn’t trying to succeed. If military intervention against ISIS is so critical, why is the administration holding back? Why are (so far) ineffective air strikes justified, but the deployment of ground troops is not? It’s almost as if the government is killing people and leveling cities in the Middle East to win over the hearts (though certainly not the minds) of American voters.
To even suggest that the United States stay out of such a conflict is horrifying to most of our poll-driven politicians. “Well, are you suggesting we do nothing?” they will cry, their eyes wide with shock, fearfully clutching their pumpkin-spice lattes. Yes, that is exactly what I’m suggesting, for the simple reason that doing nothing is better than doing something reckless and stupid. NATO engaged in airstrikes to support the anti-Qaddafi rebels in 2011, and there is no evidence its intervention there did any good. The Western-installed proxy government was toppled almost immediately and Libya today is in a state of chaos. The reason for this is quite simple: air strikes may be effective in toppling a government, but are completely useless in propping one up. Air power alone cannot hold ground or capture territory, two things necessary for the success of a ground war. As a former British chief of staff so bluntly put it “Air power alone will not win a campaign like this…This is a conventional enemy in that it has armor, tanks, artillery… it is quite wealthy, it holds ground and it is going to fight. So therefore, you have to view it as a conventional military campaign”.
I fail to see why, given the policy’s pitiful track record, its tendency to indiscriminately kill civilians and, most importantly, its inefficacy and dismissal by military experts, NATO and the Obama administration continue to rely solely on air strikes to achieve their objectives.
Moving on to the broader question: is military intervention justified for humanitarian purposes? Amongst politicians, this is answered with a resounding “Sometimes”. For Democrats, Kosovo and Libya are “good interventions”, while Iraq is a “bad intervention”, and for Republicans it is precisely the reverse. In order to make sense of this ungrounded, unprincipled, and downright mad foreign policy one must come to the conclusion that, before agreeing to any foreign intervention, the first question politicians of either party consider is: “Does my party currently hold the presidency?”
As a rule of thumb, a humanitarian cause per se is not sufficient cause for foreign intervention, and the United States should generally stay removed from foreign conflicts. The reason I advocate a non-interventionist foreign policy is not because I’m some nativist or isolationist; it is because I take military action very seriously. Soldiers are not party apparatchiks who kill people in foreign countries to quell resentment amongst the American electorate; they have volunteered their service, and indeed their lives, in defense of the United States. To send them abroad to fight for any other purpose does them a great disservice. This is not what they signed up for.