World

Why Can’t Stopping the Slaughter of Iraqi Refugees Be the Top U.S. Priority?

Will just-announced military action save thousands of refugees?

The U.S. military is back on war footing in Iraq, launching air strikes Friday morning to keep ISIS from taking over the Kurds' biggest city, Erbil, and airdropping tons of food and water to tens of thousands of refugees who have fled to the mountains.

President Obama announced these moves on national television Thursday night. Immediately afterward, top White House and Pentagon staffers briefed reporters on the goals and details. Even though the president spoke of preventing a “potential genocide” among refugees, his spokespeople kept emphasizing the need to act to protect a handful of American soldiers and diplomats stationed in Erbil.

When asked at the end of the national security briefing if the water and food drop for 8,000 people was going to suffice for an estimated 40,000 refugees, the officials—whose names are always withheld—said those numbers were overblown, and they expected Iraqis and Kurds to do their part.

These remarks, which follow below from White House transcripts, beg the question if the American response to the still-unfolding humanitarian crisis is going to be too little, too late for the tens of thousands of people who fled for their lives.

America's clunky response—days in the making; justifying military action by citing the presence of Americans who are safe in Erbil by all accounts, not prioritizing stopping a well-documented bloodbath and refugee crisis—seems morally inept and insufficient. After all, our military, despite recent troop withdrawals, has occupied Iraq for years.        

Take a look at the administration’s statements as they unfolded. Under Washington protocol, the president has to speak first, and spelled out the crisis and mission on TV late Thursday evening. According to the White House transcript:

“Today I authorized two operations in Iraq—targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death. Let me explain the actions we’re taking and why. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain—with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help—in this case, a request from the Iraqi government—and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

Later in the address, Obama returned to the humanitarian crisis.

“But when the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action. That’s my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief. And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That’s a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.”

Is that call to moral leadership really "who we are"—or did the administration decide to help the refugees after deciding it could justify that step only after finding a handful of Americans stationed in Erbil? 

The White House first had to get permission from the Iraqi government to act under international law, its national security spokespeople said. “That provides us with the basis to essentially lay down a marker that we are going to take action with the airstrikes if we see movements by ISIL that put our people at risk.”

Then it had to find a basis to act under domestic law, which comes as House Republicans are suing the president for exercising too much executive branch action.  

“As to the domestic legal basis, we believe the President has the authority under the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief to direct these actions, which are consistent with this responsibility to protect U.S. citizens and to further U.S. national security and foreign policy interests,” the briefers said. “Specifically, the protection of U.S. personnel and facilities is among his highest responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief, and given the threats that we see on the periphery of Erbil, he has authorized the use of targeted military action.”

Then, as a secondary concern, the refugee crisis was cited.

“Similarly, we believe that there is an urgent humanitarian challenge that further poses a threat to U.S. interests,” the national security briefer said. “As I said this rises to the level of a potential act of genocide when you have an entire group of people being targeted for killing, and you have a population of the size that is on Mount Sinjar that is threatened with starvation as one option, or, as the President said, coming down that mountain and potentially being massacred by ISIL.”

But that was one of only a few specific mentions about the refugees in a briefing where the top justification was protecting “our personnel and facilities.”  

Toward the end of the briefing, a reporter asked how long the airdropped food and water supplies for 8,000 were going to last, given there are an estimated 40,000 refugees on the run.

“There have been estimates in the thousands, and then there have been estimates that go into the tens of thousands—40,000 would certainly be I think at the very far end and higher than I think the assessed population on the mountain,” the national security briefer replied. “But needless to say, however, we’re going to continue providing airdrops as we see a need.”

This latest war and refugee crisis in Iraq—coming as the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza continues with missile strikes on Friday morning—vividly illustrates why ordinary people always end up as victims in war. While Americans can wring their hands over what must be done to end the cycle of violence between Israel and Palestine, one has to ask if we could have acted sooner to stop the slaughter and refugee crisis in northwestern Iraq. We will soon see if what we’re doing is too little, too late.    

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).