Saving The Yazidis
Yesterday, President Obama authorized the U.S. military to make airdrops of food and water supplies, and airstrikes in the part of Iraq under the control of the Islamic State that has de facto political control of most of Northern and Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. Before taking action, he obtained the permission of the elected civilian Iraqi government that the U.S. and its allies installed in the wake of the Iraq War that deposed the Baathist regime of dictator Saddam Hussein, to take action in Iraqi territory.
The mission was carried out with five aircraft. A large C-17 military cargo plane and two smaller C-130 military cargo planes dropped 72 bundles of food and water containing a total of 5,300 gallons of drinking water and 8,000 pre-prepared military ration meals over about 15 minutes in a target drop area. Two F/A-18 fighter jets (the main kind of jet fighters deployed on aircraft carriers) escorted the cargo planes and bombed selected Islamic State military targets in the vicinity.
President Obama did this to protect members of the Yazidi religious minority trapped in Sinjar Mountain without food and water facing imminent slaughter by fundamentalist Sunni Islamist fighters from the Islamic State. Stopping an imminent atrocity that we had the power to prevent from happening was a central justification for the United States to take some steps, however modest, to help. The Yazidi community had previously relied regional Kurdish government militias to protect them, but the Islamic State had outgunned the Kurds in this instance, which is in the heart of the territory that they claim as their own.
The Islamic State openly acknowledges that one of its objectives is the extermination or exile from its territory ("ethnic cleansing to use the term used by Serbs in the war in Bosnia) of the Yazidi people. Their fundamentalist reading of Islamic law calls this objective a religiously required and righteously moral jihad. The rest of the world and international law, however, consider any efforts to carry out these objectives by the Islamic State to be the war crimes of genocide and of the disproportionate slaughter of civilians, because killing these non-combatants civilians serves no legitimate military objective.
President Obama also did this protect the safety of U.S. humanitarian aide workers and U.S. diplomats at a U.S. consulate in the vicinity, but this justification was secondary.
The U.S. could have simply brought U.S. citizens in the region into the consulate, holed up there with protection from a beefed up Marine Guard Unit, and extracted the people in the consulate if it appeared that this modern fortress would not hold, while leaving the locals to fight their own battles without any U.S. intervention.
The United States has done many times in the past at locations around the world. An evacuation of this kind from the U.S. embassy in Vietnam in the final days of the Vietnam War was famously captured by news photographers. A 2003 Hollywood movie on this theme called "Tears of the Sun" portraying an effort to make this kind of extraction in an African country that was falling apart that famously illustrated the moral problems with this kind of policy. This week's episode of international intervention by President Obama, however, is one of the first times in recent memory in U.S. history that the U.S. has taken action to address the moral problems with its standard evacuate its own and don't intervene protocol in these situations.
Who Are The Yazidi and Why Does The Islamic State Want To Slaughter Them?
While it doesn't really matter much to the larger issue of U.S. policy towards preventing atrocities like the Islamic State's attempt to slaughter the Yazidi people, it is worth a moment to familiarize ourselves with who they are and why the Islamic State wants to kill them.
From the point of view of their fundamentalist Sunni Muslim religious doctrine, the Islamic State is justified in its genocide of these people. Islamic law calls for Muslim communities to allow other "People of the Book" (i.e. Christians and Jews) to be tolerated on a subordinate basis, but demands the conversion or extermination of pagans and heretic Muslims. But, the Yazidi are clearly not "People of the Book." And, in the interests of expediency and terrorizing dissenters, the Islamic State, in the honeymoon period at the dawn of its regime, has focused on the extermination strategy, rather than the conversion approach.
The Yazidi people's religion is an offshoot of Zorastrianism, with a strongly gnostic character and borrowing from other pagan religious traditions of Mesopotamia. There are about 700,000 Yazidi people in the world, about 500,000 in Iraq (mostly in Ninevah province in an area near the Kurdish-Arab ethnic boundary in that Northwestern Iraqi province), about abut 35,000 in Armenia, about 18,000 in Tiblisi, Georgia (with another 2,000 elsewhere in Georgia), and about 105,000 in a diaspora mostly in Germany, Russia and Sweden.
Gnosticism is a mystical metaphysical belief system that was influential particularly among Neo-Platonistic philosophers and early Christian sects of the classical Greco-Roman era in the Eastern Mediterranean that lost the struggle to become the orthodox interpretation of Christianity among early Christian sectors that considered each other to be mutually heretical.
Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of Iran (known as Persia at the time) from ca. 1000 BCE to about 650 CE, and communities that practiced this religion were common throughout the classical Greco-Roman era in Anatolia, Babylon and Central Asia.
Zoroastrianism is a likely religious source of ideas that would give rise to Christian metaphysical understandings of the world we live in as a battle ground between the forces of Good, led by God in Heaven, and the forces of evil, led by Satan in Hell, who send angels, prophets, Jesus and demons into the world to do their bidding. These ideas probably made their way into Christianity, not directly, but through Jews returning to the Levant from a period of exile in Babylon where they would have been exposed to Zoroastrianism who incorporated these ideas into one of more Jewish sects from which Christianity emerged. These Zoroastrian influences had little impact, however on the sects of Judaism that would go on to found modern Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 CE.
In addition to the Zoroastrian influenced Yazidi people mostly from Northern Iraq in the vicinity, two relatively "purely Zoroastrian" faiths remain. The Parsi community, which migrated to India from the Persian capitol of Pars in the wake of the initial mass forced conversion to Islam in Persia ca. 700-900 CE, and the Irani community, who migrated to India from Iran ca. 1500-1700 CE, in the wake of a crackdown on relict Zoroastrian communities by a later Islamic ruler in Persia.
Today, fewer than 1 million of the 7046 million people on Earth are either Zoroastrian or Yazidi: the 700,000 people who share the Yazidi faith (which is sufficiently far from its Zoroastrian influences to be considered a separate religion from it) and the 125,000 to 300,000 members of Zoroastrian sects. These Zoroastrians are found today in India (ca. half of the world total), Iran (ca. 1/6th), Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Pakistan (ca. 1/8th in these three countries combined), various English speaking countries around the world (about 1/5th of the world total), and small communities in Singapore and the Gulf States (about 1/20th).
The Case For Atrocity Prevention On A Budget
We Are Regularly Aware of Atrocities That Are Imminent Or In Progress
The modern reality is that telecommunications and widespread global travel, communication and commerce brings news of imminent atrocities or atrocities in progress around the world to the attention of well informed Americans several times a year.
We knew about the Hutu genocide directed at Tutsi people in Burundi as it was about to happen and started to happen. We were aware of the Boko Haram capture of hundreds of school girls in Northern Nigeria before many people in Lagos did and have also heard promptly about the many instances in which Boko Haram has slaughtered whole villages in Northern Nigeria. We have witnessed Syria and Libya use aircraft to bomb their own civilian populations, and promptly witnessed Syria use chemical weapons on its own people in a way that did not discriminate between soldiers and civilians - we intervened in Libya under Hilary Clinton's leadership as Secretary of State, but did not in Syria, in order to avoid crossing Russia which deployed war ships to the Syrian coast to discourage Western intervention in the conflict.
Together With Our Allies, We Have The Ability To Stop Many Individual Atrocities
The United States has, by far, the most powerful military force in the world. It has the largest and most advanced air force and is the only country with a significant fleet of operational stealth aircraft. It has the largest blue sea navy in the world by war, and the greatest power to use that navy to establish bases for its troops and aircraft and missiles far from its own territory. It is rivaled only by Russia in its nuclear arsenal.
Only China has more tanks (although, surprisingly, Syria is second to the United States in that respect). Also, only China has more active duty soldiers, despite the fact that the U.S. has about a third fewer active duty soldiers than it did during the Cold War, and has a wealth of veteran officers and non-commissioned officers with wartime experience and training that rivals any other military in the world.
The budget of the United States military is the largest in the world and rivals or exceeds the military budgets of the rest of the world combined. Our intelligence resources are second to none.
The U.S. also has a great many allies in the world, many of whom are willing to offer up their assistance and military resources as part of coalitions with the U.S. to advance uncontroversial missions, and the U.S. together with its developed world allies, collectively, wield immense economic power in the global economy. The money that third world despots have available to fund their own military organizations comes mostly from their share of profits from the domestic operations of multinational companies based in the developed world, from sovereign wealth funds invested in developed world economies or in developing economies other than their own through international financial markets in developed world economies, and through direct military aid and loans to these countries.
Even if the U.S. cannot unilaterally sanction sovereign bad actors in the world economy effectively with economic sanctions, the community of first world nations, collectively, if they chose to do so, collective do have economic control over the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, the atrocities that we do learn about almost always take place in smallish (compared to the United States or the European Union or China or India, for example), third world or developing world countries with non-democratic governments with regimes that leave little to find worth respecting, other than their bare sovereignty.
We don't intervene in this atrocities, however, most of the time, out of a lack of direct national interest, a fear that we will end up footing an unaffordable bill in the lives of our soldiers and treasure, to become a "World Policeman" that we are not politically willing to pay, and a fear that intervention will impair the benefits we and our allies receive from the principle of absolute national sovereignty, transforming civil wars and insurgencies across the globe into a Pandora's box unleashed to international wars.
Devoting A Measured Amount of Resources To Atrocity Prevention As An Express, Secondary Mission Of Our National Defense And Intelligence Establishment Is In Our National Interest.
I believe that we can do better, and that it is in our interest to do so.
We can't do everything as a world policeman, but we could certainly set aside 1%-2% of the defense and intelligence budget ($7-$14 billion a year plus contributions from allies who would join us in this venture, with perhaps 15,000 to 30,000 active duty soldiers and appropriate weapons systems, vehicles and gear for their missions), together with no additional cost or low additional cost assistance from other national security resources (such as spy satellites), for a military, intelligence, law enforcement, and humanitarian aid force that had as its primary mission preventing atrocities due to military force or natural disaster, intervening to prevent atrocities in progress, and holding the war criminal perpetrators of atrocities accountable.
This force wouldn't be large enough to effect regime change, or serve as long term peacekeepers as the U.N. Blue Helmet forces do, but it would be enough to rapidly intervene in international crisis situations much like police, firemen, and EMTs do domestically. Even a tiny force of a five planes and perhaps a couple of hundred active duty servicemen was enough to make all the temporary but critical difference that may have saved thousands of lives for the Yazidis in a moment of crisis this week, for example.
This narrow mission - limited to war crimes and national disasters - would also provide a limiting principle to this exception to the general principle of national sovereignty that would prevent the general rule from being too badly compromised. This would be akin to the domestic violence and child abuse and neglect exceptions to the general rule of a family's right to privacy in its own home and autonomy and religious freedom in how the members of that family raise their children. This narrow mission would also help to keep this agency popular politically, both at home with voters and abroad with allies.
This agency could be mobilized by the President in times of war for other national defense missions, much like the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps reserve units. So, this spending while being put to use and generating a corp of people with real life conflict experience, would be available if necessary. And, honestly, a huge percentage of the U.S. military (certainly more than 1%-2%) is training (often for missions that are highly unlikely to every happen), rather than involved in carrying out any other military operations or objectives, at any given time.
The limited budget of the agency, contributions of third party economic resources, and limited mandate of the agency would allow the United States, through the agency, to be a world policeman, without falling down the slippery slope that would overextend American budgetary resources, expose American soldiers unreasonable to risks not justified in the narrowly construed national interest, or impair the general rule of sovereignty as a governing principle of international law.
In addition to assuaging our consciences and "saving the world", this agency would also enhance U.S. soft power by adding to U.S. goodwill, in the world through the horrors it prevented that it had no obligation to prevent, and by cementing a global perception of international leadership and of the U.S. as a first among equals in the world.
Furthermore, by establishing that there is someone in the world who will intervene to stop war crimes, save disaster victims, and punish war criminals, this agency would discourage war crimes as a political tactic and would mitigate the harm caused by natural disasters and in the process would make the world a safer place for American commerce and Americans around generally and would advance democracy. World leaders who can't credibly threaten to commit war crimes with impunity are weaker and this strengthens the hands of the comparatively good guys around the world in their own domestic struggles for political power, making the world a better place for everyone and enhancing economic development in a way that ill supervised, tiny grant programs have failed to achieve.
Details: Some Guiding Principles
As a result of budget limitations, the agency might not have the ability to response to every incident in the world that its mandate would permit it to intervene in, and political realities like credible demands from nuclear armed countries that the agency not intervene in a particular conflict would prevent it from taking on other missions.
I would contemplate a threshold for taking on a mission that might result in three to six major war crime interventions in a particular year, perhaps another half a dozen or dozen potential war crime interventions that can be handled with much smaller teams (perhaps a platoon or smaller with a few civilian advisors), and perhaps half a dozen to a dozen full fledged natural disaster responses a year in cases where no other responders are adequate and deployments of a few specialists to assist otherwise adequate national natural disaster responses in a couple of dozen other cases. A budget of $6-$13 billion a year, plus perhaps $1-6 billion of agency supporter and coalition support would probably be able to manage a level of operations on something like this order of magnitude. If it couldn't, it would do less. Someone in the organization would have an office devoted to finding other people to do work within the agency's mandate that it can't afford to do itself.
Typical missions would last anywhere from a few days to a few months.
I would imagine that the number of people at any given time being investigated, pursued, or prosecuted for war crimes might number in the dozens or low hundreds in an operation that might cost $100 million to $1,000 million a year, but might also generate revenues sporadically from asset forfeitures from convicted and suspected war criminals, and, like support for humanitarian natural disaster aid, it might generate national government financial support in cases from countries that might be uncomfortable supporting military action to support war crimes (e.g. from countries like German and Japan that have constitutions that disavow offensive military action, or from countries like Switzerland that prefer to remain a position of neutrality for the most part).
A number of missions would be outside the scope of this agency.
It would have a rapid reaction "emergency room" philosophy of stabilizing the patient, and would not be an agency in the business of providing "long term care" in the form of prolonged peace keeping missions or "nation building."
It would not respond to coups, even if they depose democratically elected regimes, that don't involve imminent risks of atrocities committed against large numbers of civilians.
It would not be an anti-terrorism force, even though there are parallels. While one man's terrorist may be another man's freedom fighter, nobody wants to stand up for a war criminal or war crime, or to let people suffer and die as a result of a natural disaster.
It would operate with the kind of transparency found in well run civilian governmental agencies, rather than the shroud of secrecy associated with agencies that have a "national security" mission. It would have a "white" budget, would not engage in covert operations, and would not be privy to state secrets other than brief tactical delays in disclosing operational information in order to facilitate current operations but not to protect methods and practices. The only secrets would be those necessary to protect intelligence collection methods and practices from other national security oriented intelligence agencies. Even then, this agency would operate on the basis of maximum transparency and would share any intelligence, used by it in a particular mission, that had to be redacted for the public with the intelligence agency counterparts of in all governments contributing to any particular mission. It might even have a counterpart to the U.S. Secretary of State's website warning travelers and locals alike of disaster and conflict risks in various places.
The agency would have as its ultimate commander in chief at all times the President of the United States and would be an international organization permanently controlled and primarily funded by the United States government in which other governments could participate with voice and contractual promises but not a vote. It would not be subject to United Nations or NATO control, or require their authorization to act. Details of how missions would be authorized could be worked out. It might be done by the President as a political decision, it might be done by vote of an agency board, it might be authorized or subject to conferral without a mandatory approval by the U.S. Senate or Congress, or some Congressional committee or foreign ally participants in the agency or the supporters of a particular mission, or it might call for a judge or multi-judge panel of a court to authorize missions at the request of a decision maker in a manner similar to an arrest warrant or search warrant or wiretap or grand jury indictment, but without the secrecy attendant with any of those tools - proceedings to request authorization to act would, as much as possible be public and certainly would not be classified. Authorizations for missions would not themselves be specific enough to require tactical short term secrecy related to operational details. The public discussion of a possible request to authorize a mission would be calculated (much like U.N. Security Council meetings) to deter war crimes and encourage remedial action and negotiation and disclosure of information that clarifies the situations on the part of countries suspected of committing war crimes.
In some ways it would have something of the character of the French foreign legion. Individuals who are not citizens, nationals or permanent residents of the United States would be allowed to be employees, independent contractors and active duty or reserve military personnel in the agency. But, military veterans of the agency receiving honorable discharges would have a right to U.S. citizenship and the same military benefits as U.S. veterans. Foreign soldiers could swear allegiance to the agency's mission and to loyally obey the orders of its ex officio commander in chief, but not to the United States, or to its constitution or laws except insofar as they apply to the agency itself.
The agency's charter would permit up to 1/3rd of the agency's military personnel organized in national military units loaned from the military of another nation but subject to the agency's command and control, and would be allowed to receive up to 1/3rd of the agency's funding to come from supporting governments. For example, perhaps Canada might provide a unit of 1,500 people trained in search and rescue operations and their gear at Canadian expense as part of a Canadian unit, for a couple of year commitment. The unit would remain part of the Canadian military, but while serving with the agency, that Canadian unit's commanding officer would report to the general who was the commanding officer for the military personnel in the agency who in turn would report to the President of the United States.
The agency would also be permitted to borrow or rent military or civilian resources from non-U.S. governments on a long term or temporary basis. "Significant" free borrowing or "significant" dramatically below reasonably equivalent value support, however, would count against the 1/3rd of agency funding from outside sources that was permitted under its charter. Short term use of resources donated to it (e.g. use of an air field or port or vehicle for less than a month in connection with current missions), donated humanitarian supplies, volunteers not paid by their sponsoring governments, somewhat below fair market value economic arrangements, unrestricted donations from individual or corporate donors not affiliated with or controlled by a government, or donations under some threshold of dollar value per year, would not count as significant. Bribes and kickbacks for individuals working at the agency would be strictly forbidden (no "tipping" allowed for rescuers except as authorized by express written policies of the organization).
U.S. posse comitatus limitations would apply to the agency just as they do to other U.S. military forces.
The United States and other supporting countries could (and would) delegate to the agency the authority to issue refugee visas and to transport refugees to the sponsoring countries in a safe and secure manner. Each nation's delegations of immigration authority would be on its own terms and conditions and would be individually negotiated. Thus, for example, Germany might offer to provide refugee status to 10,000 Yazaris assisted by the agency in the year 2014, subject to processing of applications by a German immigration official loaned by Germany to the agency for the mission to assist the Yazari people in the face of a threat from the Islamic State, while Indonesia might agree to provide refugee status to up to 2,000 Sunni Muslim sympathizers and deserters who renounce their military intentions in the same mission in the year 2013, subject to processing of applications by an Indonesian immigration official loans by Indonesia to the agency for the purposes of this mission.
Countries that regularly offered to assist with refugee visas like the United States, Canada and Sweden might have civilian immigration application processors on loan to the agency indefinitely who were authorized to handle delegated refugee authority for any incident that might come up and might have form refugee visa delegation contracts drawn up and agreed to by the agency and the supporting country so that no time was wasted haggling over boilerplate details and only mission specific authorizations would have to be communicated when emergencies come up.
Similarly, there could be standing agreements and arrangements in place with particular countries regarding support for the agency through donations of humanitarian aid supplies, use of air fields, or protocols for gaining permission to cross a nation's airspace in furtherance of a mission, or to provide natural disaster response in a country. These standing agreements might even include standing agreements to provide certain kinds of assistance to the agency in certain situations without the prior authorization of elected officials or high level government officials.
The agency might organize a system of low cost or subsidized national disaster insurance for countries that don't have sufficient financial reserves, credit, political discipline, are too small, or do not have a sufficient lack of corruption, to allow them to finance their own national responses to natural disasters when they come up (e.g. the kinds of services that FEMA provides in the United States which the United States can afford without insurance because it is large enough to spread risk widely and is affluent and non-corrupt enough to pre-fund in a natural disaster reserve fund, tax and spend or to borrow funds to provide this kind of disaster assistance if necessary).
The agency would have a secondary mission of documenting atrocities and determining who was responsible in cases that it is unable to mobilize to prevent for whatever reason. I suspect that the agency would prove to be able in practice to mount an effective economic sanction regime on countries that commit war crimes, but its credibility and first hand on the scene documentation of war crimes when it intervenes might be sufficient to help others mobilize economic sanctions. On the other hand, I do think that it might be able to secure widespread cooperation from national governments to cooperate in prosecuting war criminals, much as the Israeli government has received considerable support from other national governments in its long running, dogged and tireless efforts to prosecute Nazi war criminals for the principle of the matter even when they are elderly and harmless now.
War criminals who were located would be prosecuted in the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal, when available, a national court with jurisdiction (universal or specific) over the Defendant for the acts charged, or an agency military tribunal when neither the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal or a national court of the United States or a participating or cooperating country, is not available. The relevant judicial body, as the case might be, would have authority to issue arrest warrants, to issue search warrants, to make extradition requests, to attach assets, etc. in countries with treaty relationships to the agency or a participating country taking action coordinated with the agency, and so on. There would also be arrangements with the United States and/or other participating countries for the incarceration of war criminals convicted by these means.
Countries would have the option of signing on to a full fledged membership in the agency which would require it to consent in advance to any future authorized missions in their country, to cooperation with agency investigations and prosecutions of war criminals, and to other kinds of cooperation with and contributions to the agency. Some of these might be particularized to particular relationships with individualized treaties in a manner a bit like individualized agreements in the Middle Ages of a notable lord to swear fealty to a more powerful sovereign lord. They would have rights and privileges that would be respected by the lord and would be on the lord's "team" and not attacked by him without good cause, in exchange for recognizing the lord's authority to obtain certain kinds of support and cooperation from him.