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Sowing dragon's teeth in Iraq

  • 28 August 2014

Only a year ago loud voices called for military intervention in Syria against the Assad regime. Now the same voices call for military intervention in Syria and Iraq against a feared opponent of the Assad regime. Many of us are caught between our desire to see the barbarous actions of the Islamic State (IS) halted and our justifiable lack of trust in military intervention and in its proponents. Caught in such hesitation, we might helpfully think through the tests any intervention must satisfy.

Two kinds of intervention have been proposed. Both are envisaged to be conducted by the United States armed forces. One, already practiced, has been to launch limited attacks on IS forces in Iraq to prevent the massacre of civilians. This seems justifiable by most criteria for the making of war. It has been requested by the legitimate government of Iraq. The cause of freeing civilians from the risk of murder is just. The use of force is proportionate and limited, and the military means used seem appropriate to the goal sought: the safety of the civilians. The risk of any longer term harm from the action, such as intensifying internal conflicts in Iraq, also seems small.

The second kind of intervention proposed is to use military force to destroy the IS both in Iraq and in Syria. This proposal is open to criticism on many grounds. It must be authorised. But although the Iraq government may allow action on its territory, the permission of the Syrian Government is unlikely to be sought or given. So any action would need to be authorised by the United Nations. This is unlikely to happen. Authorisation is not a mere formality. In both Iraq and Syria many freelancing militias fight for their own interests. A Western force that joined them in bombing and killing would strip the enterprise of any humanitarian pretensions it had.

It may be conceded that the cause of curbing the Islamic State is just and calls for a police action, but those who call for action against it envisage something more – perhaps destroying its capacity to fight, killing all its leaders, or even exterminating it. When this uncertainty of goals is married to the rhetoric of the war against terror, the cause becomes a blank cheque. It should not be signed.  

The vagueness of what is envisaged in the call for military action against IS makes it difficult to