Why Obama’s Mideast Policy Won’t Stop Genocide
Policy + Politics

Why Obama’s Mideast Policy Won’t Stop Genocide

REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

A review of humanitarian intervention during the Obama administration shows a pattern of failure. The policies used to stop abuses in the long-term have instead allowed conditions where mass killings continue and abuses of human rights to exist, portending a bleak future for the people of Iraq.

In the case of the Yazidis, the U.S. has already failed them once and is to blame for the conditions that allowed a near-genocide. In 2011, President Obama cut off nearly all contact with the Iraqi government, leaving it to its own devices to rebuild the country.

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However, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did the opposite; he implemented policies that disenfranchised Iraq’s Sunni population. He also consolidated power in Baghdad, paying little attention to the Sunni areas in western Iraq.

This power vacuum, along with the near incompetency of the Iraqi military, allowed the International State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to advance to Baghdad’s outskirts in a matter of weeks. It also allowed the group to systematically target Iraqi Christians and other minorities, who were helpless to stop them.

Only then, as ISIS was threatening genocide, did the United States get involved by sending American warplanes and Special Forces to Iraq. They quickly turned ISIS away and now have the group in retreat.

However, unless the American military stays in Iraq for the long haul -- a notion that the Obama administration has resisted -- the gains made in recent weeks could be lost quickly, and future human rights abuses could occur. Christian Whiton, a former Bush administration State Department senior advisor said this is the shortcoming of humanitarian aid in instances where policies have failed.

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“Humanitarian intervention doesn’t work well because it’s not a real strategy, we can’t intervene everywhere, and people don’t join the military to be in a peace corps with guns,” Whiton told The Fiscal Times.

Repeating History
The intervention in Iraq mirrors two other instances where American policy failures allowed humanitarian crises to occur. The first was in Libya where in 2011 the United States watched as former President Muammar Gadhafi committed numerous atrocities against his own people, including rape, the killing of innocents and wrongful imprisonment.

Obama responded to these abuses with airstrikes that ultimately defeated Gadhafi. But since then, Obama’s Libya policy has been almost non-existent. The president himself has admitted as much.

“I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this. Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America,’” Obama told The New York Times in a recent interview. “At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. ... So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’”

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Libya is now paying the price for Obama’s failure to support these institutions. A civil war continued to rage there, with reports of new human rights violations committed by both sides. 

The second case is Syria. In many ways, Obama’s decision not to use force has been validated by the removal of the chemical weapons that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used against his own people. However, Obama’s lack of involvement since the chemical weapons deal was struck has allowed human rights abuses to continue. 

Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing mass killings at a Syrian prison. The group also reported in January that Assad’s forces have been indiscriminately killing and torturing prisoners. 

The accounts of the four recently released detainees we interviewed lend further credibility to the already damning evidence about mass deaths in Syria’s prisons,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “When the Syrian authorities are held to account, the deaths in custody will be one of the first crimes they will have to answer for.” 

Whiton said that the failure of Obama’s intervention policies have allowed these fresh round of abuses to continue unchecked. 

“Unless an intervention is tied to a broader strategy, we may just create space for other bad actors to take power,” he said. “And unless it is tied to clear U.S. national interests, it will only make Americans even more wary of intervention.” 

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