I am not a big fan of doing “current events” posts, but recent developments in Iraq have turned a few gears in my head. As of right now, the United States is engaged in a low-level two-pronged mission: (A) Drop humanitarian aide to minority religious populations who are being directly persecuted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS — though some use ISIL); and (B) Commit airstrikes against ISIS forces intended to protect U.S. personnel and, it seems, slow their advance through Iraq. At the political level the action marks a rather significant turnaround in foreign policy for the Obama Administration — probably not the last one we will see over the next two years. Humanitarians who are normally not thrilled with military solutions to manifest military problems are, somewhat surprisingly, praising the operation, though their praise may be tempered quickly by the fact that hawkish pundits are already using the ISIS engagement as a vindication for Israel’s harsh measures in Gaza. Politics are never simple, especially at the international level, though one would hope — and pray — that some meaning distinctions can still be drawn between preventing a full-scale genocide from advancing further and a localized military engagement where the doctrine of proportionately became the first casualty.
As numerous religious bloggers and publications have noted for months, the mainstream Western media has been appallingly silent on ISIS’s systematic atrocities committed against the native Christian populations of northern Iraq. Despite the recent escalation of deplorable violence against Christians, it seems — for political reasons perhaps — that threats to the obscure sect known as the Yazidis has taken center stage to justify the mission. Fine. While there are dozens of reasons to quibble with political correctness and the shameful silence of Western political leaders, in this instance the end justifies the means. (“Save the Yazidis! Christians? Eh?”) One has to wonder, though, how effectively U.S. military action against ISIS will be when there is absolutely no political will at home to put fresh boots on the ground and relocate the requisite resources to the region which would allow for a full-scale assault against a group which is far more sophisticated than the usual roaming bands of rebels and insurgents that most of us are used to thinking about when we hear about violence in the Middle East. ISIS may not be the army of Napoleon, but their organization, military sophistication, funding, and apparent weaponry ranks them as one of the deadliest forces in the region. As we have already seen, they are more than capable of routing both Iraqi and Kurdish armies.
At the religious level, there are very good reasons for Christians — specifically Catholics — to lament the tragedy in Iraq and pray for a peaceful solution. But there are also very good reasons for Catholics to now come to grips with the hard truth that our political marriage with purely secular, if not wretched, political interests and global hawkishness has not only failed to “pay off,” but has compromised our integrity as well. Any American Catholic which actively supported the Iraq War should feel no small sense of shame right now, even if they, understandably, could not foresee current events way back in 2003/04. Let us not forget how many Church leaders — including our late pontiff John Paul II — warned against U.S. military action against a state which had not attacked us nor posed a direct threat to our safety. Many of us did not listen, and now our brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering for it. We can pledge prayers and dollars, but neither will restore these beleaguered souls to their native homeland nor repair the physical and psychological harms they have suffered.
With that said, let’s be clear that there are also some very poor reasons for Christians — specifically Catholics — to lament the tragedy in Iraq. First, the rise of ISIS should not be taken as a call to further blind military action in the Middle East. Stopping ISIS is important; establishing an indefinite presence in lands which do not care for our “values” should be off the table. Second, stopping ISIS is not akin to stopping the Assad Regime in Syria, and at this point perhaps it’s time to realize that supporting the latter provides an additional route to halting the former. As I said above, international politics are not simple. And last, but not least, the suffering of Christians in Iraq — and the concrete persecution they are suffering — does not make us “co-heirs” of their pain. We are not better Catholics because we acknowledge the destruction of the Chaldean Church, nor are we entitled at any level to adopt their situation as part of our own petty campaigns against any exponentially milder persecutions Catholics may be enduring in the West. Having our “religious liberty” threatened by the HHS Mandate is not akin to having our wives and daughters raped and murdered before our very eyes.
While there is no small part of me that would like to see ISIS swept off the battlefield and the status quo ante their invasion restored, I am an indefatigable realist. Without a concentrated commitment by Western powers to enter Iraq for a full military engagement, the most any of us can reasonably hope for us is that the U.S. campaign will provide the Christians and other minorities of Iraq the time to flee to safer harbors. How long those harbors remain safe is another matter. ISIS has no reason to sit down at the negotiating table. They have no desire to make compromises. The disturbingly rapid pace of their success so far has emboldened them and, by all accounts, their numbers continue to grow. It may very well be that we, in the West, have to acknowledge that the frail, faulty, and ill-conceived project of partitioning the Middle East which began in the early years of the last century has been a failure and that no further attempts to install “liberal democracy” and “Western values” into the region should not be undertaken. It is now incumbent upon Catholics in the U.S. and Europe to press their leaders to offer permanent shelter for our Eastern brethren while doing everything in our power to ensure their safety as they proceed on a long, sorrowful, and altogether tragic exodus from lands their forebears held and sanctified for more than a millennium.