The Big Lie Americans Tell Themselves

Stopping genocide has never been a core interest of the United States.

At an August 7 press conference, Ed Henry of Fox News asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest a straightforward question about President Barack Obama's decision to authorize force against the Islamic State (IS): "Is preventing a genocide in America's core interests?" The question assumed greater resonance later that day, when Obama justified military action in Iraq "to prevent a potential act of genocide," as IS surrounds thousands of members of Iraq's Yazidi religious sect. 

Earnest paused. Then, in his incoherent non-answer, he paid lip-service to one of the most persistent truisms in American foreign policy: "Of course the United States has been and will continue to be a beacon for freedom and respect for basic human rights around the globe. And that is a core founding principle of this country and one that American men and women have fought and died to protect. And we will continue to stand up for that value."

The current generation seems to believe that preventing genocide around the world is and has always been in the United States' interest. From calls to intervene in Syria, to activism around ‘Save Darfur,' to attention paid to anti-Rohingya Muslim violence in Myanmar, there is widespread believe that the United States will intervene in troubled spots around the world. But Washington has always had a dismal record of stopping genocides and ethnic cleansing, and that is unlikely to change. 

With few exceptions, the U.S. response to grave humanitarian crisis since it emerged as a major power in the 1870s have ranged from tacit support and indifference to post-facto condemnation. Probably the first example was in the 1880s, when then President Chester A. Arthur recognized and supported Belgian King Leopold's claims to the Congo. Leopold's brutal rule -- indiscriminate violence against local populations, collective punishment, and mutilations, led to the death of several million Congolese, if not more. Despite decades of lobbying for the United States to take a strong position against Leopold, Washington remained reluctant. Teddy Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, said "it was a literal physical impossibility to interfere" and called the idea of campaigning for intervention "imbecile."

In subsequent decades, U.S. presidents more isolationist than Roosevelt refused to stop Japanese atrocities in East Asia, Turkey's genocide in Armenia, or European colonizers' large-scale killing of civilians in places like Southeast Asia. Joseph Stalin's forced deportation of some 6 million minorities in the Soviet Union in the 1930s -- ethnic cleansing in its truest sense -- did not diminish the admiration for him by some in the highest levels of U.S. government, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vice president Henry A. Wallace (who later tried to make amends by publishing an article called "Where I Was Wrong"). 

What about the Holocaust? U.S. war efforts certainly contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany and put an end to the most horrifyingly industrialized genocide in history. But American popular lore often overlooks the fact that on December 11, 1941, Adolf Hitler first declared war on the United States -- and not vice versa. The United States' humanitarian intentions -- despite having learned about Auschwitz and other concentration camps -- were an afterthought.

It gets worse. The United States managed to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union while preserving its moral high ground. But that period may have marked a nadir for the United States when it came to genocide and ethnic cleansing. As Princeton professor Gary J. Bass documents in his 2013 book The Blood Telegram, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger tacitly supported the Pakistan military's ethnic cleansing in East Pakistan in the early 1970s, which led to the deaths of at least 300,000 people. It wasn't until an opportunistic intervention by India in 1971 -- which the United Nations overwhelming condemned -- that the mass killings stopped. 

And when the Khmer Rouge conducted its reign of terror in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, leading to the death of up to 25 percent of its roughly 7 million people -- proportionally the largest genocide of the 20th century -- Washington remained aloof. Because of its then geopolitical interests at the time with regards to opening up to China and spurning the USSR and Vietnam, Washington opted for a policy of non-intervention, a morally indefensible stance. The United States was even critical of the 1978-1979 invasion of Cambodia by a pro-Soviet Vietnam that ended Pol Pot's reign.

Similarly, when Saddam Hussein used chemical and conventional weapons to kill an estimated 100,000 ethnic Kurds in Iraq in 1988, Washington -- having recently made overtures to Baghdad, with which it then had a common adversary in Iran -- did not even impose sanctions, much less intervene. 

It was the hands-off approach to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, at a moment of unchallenged U.S. global supremacy, that awoke the United States from its slumber. Many, including current U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, then a young National Security Council official dealing with international organizations and peacekeeping, felt that Washington could and should have stopped the genocide, which saw members of the Hutu ethnicity slaughter more than half a million ethnic Tutsis in just a few months.

Given its century-long track record of non-intervention, the 1999 U.S.-led bombing campaign in Yugoslavia to stop the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians was an aberration. But even in that case, Washington was arguably influenced as much by other considerations -- Western European countries' determination to intervene, Washington's enmity with Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, and the United States' overwhelming military superiority -- as altruism. And America's subsequent record -- failing to stop the ethnic cleansing in the Sudanese region of Darfur, in the shambolic Central African Republic, or (again) in the Congo, has been dismal. 

Why then do so many Americans cling to the belief that genocide prevention has been -- or could be -- a core national interest? Some of the self-delusion may stem from America's self-image as a moral superpower, combined with the unambiguous success of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in the Balkans. And it is hard to underestimate the influence of the 2002 book A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power -- now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations -- on the foreign policy community. Yet Power's book, which drew attention to the Washington's poor track record on genocide prevention, has produced far more in the way of historical revisionism than changes to policy.

None of this grim history should mean that the United States lacks a moral compass in its international relations. Nor does it mean that Washington should not help the Yazidis and other minority groups at the receiving end of the Islamic State's savagery. That is a call for senior U.S. leaders to make, taking into account their country's interests, abilities, costs, and risks. But let's get one thing straight: Stopping genocide is not a core U.S. national security interest, nor has it ever been, and realizing that would be better than radiating false hope to persecuted minorities the world over.

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The Peacock Angel and the Pythagorean Theorem

A thousand years ago, Yazidis and tiny pagan sects flourished under the caliphate. But the days of the tolerant Islamic state are over.

The so-called Islamic State has marched into northwestern Iraq, an area rich in religious diversity, leaving a wake of bodies behind. It has driven the Christians who live there out of their homes. It has destroyed the crosses on their churches and demanded that they pay a tax or face the penalty of death. It has in the meantime offered the Yazidis, a people who practice an ancient and mysterious religion, a simpler choice: Convert to Islam or die.

Hundreds of Yazidis have already died of thirst or exposure, on occasion allegedly throwing their children off Mount Sinjar or shooting them in order to spare them a crueler fate. Basim Karim, one of a tiny number of American Yazidis who have settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, and who is from Sinjar, told me what had happened to his family: They woke up one day to find the Kurdish peshmerga, who once protected their village, gone and the Islamic State in their place. "They saw dogs dragging around human body parts in the towns before they fled," Karim told me on Friday by phone from Washington, where he was desperately trying to lobby for international assistance, "and there were surely at least a thousand corpses. It is a genocide, happening today in 2014." He added that many women were raped, something which has been alleged by several other witnesses. Indeed, the Islamic State seems to have a repugnant combination of religious intolerance and sexual rapacity.

What will the world lose if terrorists massacre the Yazidis and drive out Iraq's Christians? Two things: complex, ancient religions whose ideas still have much to offer us; and a historic tradition of Islamic tolerance. 

The Yazidis are accused of worshipping the devil. In reality, they have maintained pre-Christian beliefs and practices from Nineveh and Babylon. To understand them best, think of the worshippers of Mithras who held secret prayer services and initiation rituals in subterranean chapels in second-century Rome. Like the Yazidis, the Mithras-worshippers adopted characteristics of ancient Near Eastern religions: the cult of the sun, a strict ethical code, and secret holy texts. The Yazidi scriptures, like those of the Mithraists, were never written down. Their prayers may never be witnessed by outsiders, but they pray in Kurmanji (a Kurdish language) for others first, before praying for themselves -- and they use the mantra, adopted perhaps from the Zoroastrians of Iran, of "good thought, good word, and good deed."

The Yazidis survived for centuries in Sinjar because it was hardscrabble and remote, and they were tough fighters. They tended to make common cause with local Christians -- who were themselves refugees from mistreatment; the two communities for a long time lived side by side. Other heterodox sects joined them there, and the communities would often tolerantly take part in each other's ceremonies. Over the years, the Yazidis adapted their religion, accepting the teachings of Sufi Muslim preachers and creating a unique and esoteric belief system framed around the figure of the Peacock Angel, Malak Tawus. This figure is often identified with Lucifer, the fallen angel -- except that the Yazidis, in keeping with a radically generous ideology that was once prevalent in the Middle East, believe that nothing is too evil to be redeemed; even Lucifer has repented, extinguishing Hell with his tears, and has been restored to favor.

The Yazidis also keep alive traditions that go back thousands of years -- such as praying in the direction of the sun, believing in reincarnation, and practicing baptism in the waters of the sacred spring that runs beneath their principal temple at Lalish, north of Erbil. Malak Tawus's peacock symbol resembles the cockerel that symbolized the god Nergal for ancient Babylonians.

As compared with its brutal would-be imitators today, the real Islamic state -- the Umayyad caliphate, which ruled the region from Damascus from AD 661, and the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled it from Baghdad from AD 750 -- was kinder. In theory, the modern-day Islamic State has the same rules as the ancient caliphate, whose approach resembled that of its Christian predecessor, the Byzantine Empire: promulgate the imperial faith, penalize the followers of other religions and forbid them from promoting their faith through external signs, and forbid polytheism -- "paganism," as it was called -- altogether. In practice, however, the early Muslims were often more tolerant than their Christian predecessors.

One prominent pagan, for example, complained bitterly about the Byzantine hostility to paganism. Pagans built the world's great cities, he argued; without their achievements, the world would be destitute and ignorant. This pagan, Thabit ibn Qurra, was a member of a group called the Harranians, whose beliefs somewhat resemble those of the modern-day Yazidis. Here is the irony: He was given safe haven by the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century and lived out his life in Baghdad. While there, he was able to develop Pythagoras's theorem of triangles to the form in which we know it today. Without such scholars, Baghdad would never have been a great imperial capital -- built as it was with the help of a Hindu astronomer, a Zoroastrian, Jews, and Christians.

Here is the essential difference between the old Islamic state and the self-styled new one: The old one tolerated what would have been considered heretical beliefs, and in doing so built a great culture imbued with knowledge and learning. The new one is determined to stamp out all differences of opinion in a nihilistic orgy of destruction.

The other victims of the Islamic State's brutality are equally historic. The Christians of northern Iraq are the last remnant of what was once one of the world's greatest Christian communities, the Church of the East, which in its heyday sent the first missionaries to reach China and established monasteries as far east as Beijing. They evolved a form of Christianity that was different from that of their western co-religionists, trying to separate out the divine and human natures of Jesus so that the godhead could be uncompromised by the lowliness of humanity, and avoiding the use of icons (which may, ironically enough, have had an influence on early Islam). When Tamerlane razed Baghdad to the ground in 1401, giving orders that no building should survive unless it were either a mosque or a hospital, the adherents of the Church of the East fled north to the plain of Nineveh and settled in the villages which are now being overrun by Tamerlane's modern-day equivalents.

These are the communities which now are being crushed by the Islamic State, whose fighters advertise their contempt for human life by posing with pictures of steaming pots full of human heads. Christians and Yazidis are not the only victims. Muslims are, too.

There is a broader issue at stake here. Will the future of the Muslim world be more like Sinjar was historically -- ancient religions surviving through compromise with each other and with their Muslim neighbors -- or like Sinjar under the Islamic State's brutal rule? As the Islamic State wins battle after battle, even putting the sword to the famous Kurdish peshmerga, they gain in prestige and are better placed to terrify their enemies, win allies, and cement their rule.

The reaction of the West -- which dropped humanitarian aid for the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, and began limited airstrikes on Friday, August 8 -- has done nothing to effectively stop the Islamic State's advance or give serious help to the Kurdish peshmerga. This is deeply depressing.

The United States, in particular, is surrendering to the view that the Middle East is doomed to be a place of sectarianism and violent intolerance. That is not what most Muslims want. But if intolerant terrorists are allowed to take and hold strongholds of diversity like Sinjar, then it's what they'll get.

What then is the answer? Basim Karim is desperately worried about his elderly father, and his brothers and sisters, who are stranded like hundreds of thousands of other refugees on Iraq's border with Turkey. They have not been allowed to cross the border, but do not consider themselves safe in Iraq while the Islamic State is still on the rampage. Stranded where they are, in the desert, they have no water or medical supplies or even tents to sleep in. "We are a peaceful people," he told me. "We just want basic human needs." A refugee camp under U.N. auspices on Turkish territory could keep them alive during this hot, bloody summer.

Basim did not say it, but the defeat of the Islamic State will also require force. Washington's airstrikes may hold back the terrorists' advance on Erbil, but it seems likely that some kind of assistance will also be needed for the Kurdish peshmerga, who have proven less capable than anticipated against this new and ruthless enemy. Despite their setbacks, and the problematic context of ongoing Kurdish disputes with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the peshmerga are the only viable forces on the ground that could turn back the terrorist tide. The United States has experienced only setbacks when it has sought to involve itself in Middle Eastern wars; but it has largely succeeded when it has instead chosen to give its backing to forces already on the ground. In this case, it has a ready-made and known ally with which it can work. If it fails to do so, the United States risks letting the Islamic State grow to a point where no regional power will feel able to confront it. 

The Middle East has sometimes before been seduced by movements which had the glamour of success. Nasserist nationalism in the 1950s grew bold from its successes against British colonialism; al Qaeda gained immensely from its association with the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Imagine if today the Islamic State were to add a perception of invincibility in the face of American bombs to its reputation for vicious brutality. Governments around the region might be forced to do deals with it, nervously buying the jihadists off rather than risking its vengeance. And its cruel acolytes would spread around the world.

The besieged Yazidis and Christians of Iraq feel now that this is their last stand. The world must make sure that, rather, it is the beginning of the end for the Islamic State.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty images