Get Western leaders to protecting minority ethnic or religious groups from extinction in Iraq
In a world in which military power is heavily concentrated in Western states, especially America, which have professed a post-World War II international consciousness that ostensibly prioritizes action against unchecked sovereignty—and its ultimate excess, genocide—there is a belief that the cries of the suffering can rise through the apparatus built on that consciousness, and reach decision makers with global interests, power, and reach. Genocide exists at the extreme end of a spectrum—at the other end is a universal ideal of civilized and humane politics that Western states, many of which have a history of genocide they have sought to transcend, purport to exhibit. Just as innumerable people living in poverty, tyranny, or chaos yearn to migrate to these states, both the suffering and their advocates believe that, given our seemingly ever-growing consciousness of—and capacity to identify—atrocity and genocide, in David Rieff’s words, “international law should be upheld as strenuously as the domestic laws of democratic states.”
The anti-genocide interventions of the 1990s, rooted in an era of domestic and systemic confidence and prosperity, gave way to astonishingly costly and ruinous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tied to unprecedentedly ambitious democratization projects. The bold but brief shift toward a full fusion of war and democratic nation building under the Bush administration changed the course of an American foreign policy tradition that had “pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East, and achieved neither,” as then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it in a 2005 Cairo speech. By the Obama era, the American public was exhaustedwith increasingly unconvincing arguments for remaining deeply involved in a flailing, baffling region. “The war in Iraq,” David Rieff writes, “seems to have put the final nail in the coffin of the dream of global citizenship that began more than half a century ago with the founding of the United Nations.” “It is unwise and unsustainable,” said President Barack Obama in his final foreign policy speech at the end of 2016, reflecting an attitude that guided his decisions in the face of mass atrocities in the region, “to ask our military to build nations on the other side of the world, or resolve their internal conflicts.”
As questions of population and territory come to dominate European and American politics, the increased background peril of a world that no longer feels safely divided—even in theory—into states where genocide happens and states that might act against it, is being felt. The story of American policy in the face of genocide in Iraq and Syria is partly one of withdrawal—a direction that might once again change, but has in those places wrought damage that will last for generations. It is about deep continuities in policy, as well as short-term political calculations that came at great cost to distant peoples. It is about new realities: a post-invasion Iraqi state, evasive of models or precedents, that generated hostility within and against itself; ISIS, which emerged like a tumor from that Iraqi state; and a Syrian state that took customary repressive tactics to their logical extreme in the form of mass murder and destruction. But it is also about the old reality: that, in Rieff’s words, “the world remained the same tragic place it had always been, as unredeemed by international law as it had been by religion or Marxism or liberal capitalism.” With the failure of that system of international law unmasked, the reality of America as a state both ordinarily self-interested and extraordinarily empowered is being revealed even more painfully.
With the end of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, Assyrians—a Christian people indigenous to Iraq and neighboring areas—overwhelmingly believed that a long century defined by genocide at the hands of their neighbors, and the failure of international appeals in response to it, would yield to better times. But the invasion immediately strengthened the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) capacity and scope for land grabbing in the north, while in Baghdad, militias began to target Assyrians with violence seemingly unlimited in its potential. Unlike ISIS later on, these militias—both Sunni and Shia—were frequently networked within the Iraqi state.
The American occupation of Iraq seemed to create new possibilities for advocacy. The sizeable American-Assyrian community, the product of earlier genocide and continued persecution, hoped they could gain access to an American political system tied to the vast bureaucracy of the occupation. Calls by Assyrian leaders and the transnational Assyrian public for a degree of self-administration in the Nineveh Plain—their historic heartland in northern Iraq—accelerated as Sunni and Shia militias emptied Baghdad of its Assyrian population.
Michael Youash, a Canadian-Assyrian scholar of governance design, was project director of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, a Nineveh Plain advocacy organization, and also represented the Iraqi Minorities Council in Washington. The Nineveh Plain project ISDP represented was not an initiative of separatism. It was deeply attached in principle to the American project for Iraq, and sought to use legal mechanisms within the new Iraqi constitution in order to create a province in the Nineveh Plain, the most crucial aspect of which would see local security forces defend Assyrian towns.
In Iraq, the proposal was primarily being pursued by the Assyrian Democratic Movement, whose leader, Yonadam Kanna, was the only non-Muslim in the provisional Iraqi government under the Coalition Provisional Authority in the year following the invasion. Kanna was so deeply convinced by and committed to the American project that he was notable in responding positively to the American call to disband non-army militias in Iraq, disarming the storied 5,000-strong armed wing of his party even as other leaders expanded their own forces.
In 2003, then-State Sen. Barack Obama stood in front of a crowd at the Assyrian National Council of Illinois (a state that, along with Michigan and California, contains the highest number of Iraqi voters) and said that he opposed the war, and was particularly concerned that the United States had no plan for the aftermath of the invasion. The crowd, mostly convinced that the new Iraq signaled a new dawn for their people, reacted negatively.
U.S. commitments to Iraq in the final years of the George W. Bush administration intensified expectations. “During the surge in 2007-8,” Youash told me, “we were saying: If you’re going to commit this many troops, if you’re clearly doubling down on Iraq, if you’ve got the political will—now is the time to carve out a minority policy that will protect the most vulnerable citizens of Iraq.” Instead, the U.S. government extended its status quo response: insisting that as Iraq stabilized, the condition of Assyrians would improve with the rest of the population. “But even as renewed U.S. commitment led to reduced violence between Sunni and Shia Arabs, things continued to get worse for minorities, and there was silence from the United States.”
The United States did nothing to stop violence against Assyrians in Baghdad (and other places with significant Christian populations like Mosul) so severe that in 2007, they represented 40% of Iraqi refugees, at around 4% of the population. The Nineveh Plain was often the only remotely safe destination for internally displaced Assyrians fleeing violence elsewhere, underscoring the claims of the province project to legitimacy as a solution to the burgeoning genocide of Assyrians. But the United States also did nothing to secure a future for Assyrians in the plain, where de facto KRG annexation entailed the violent targeting of dissenters, the blocking of development, and dismantling the political agency of inhabitants. “The U.S. decision to treat Baghdad and Erbil as mutually legitimate spheres of contestation in the Nineveh Plain,” said Youash, “ultimately resulted in the destruction of Iraq’s most vulnerable populations.”
Awareness that genocide was either present or imminent in Iraq was widespread in American intellectual and political circles. In a 2006 Time magazine article, Samantha Power observed “genocidal intent” in the actions of sectarian militias. In 2007 and 2008, Obama wrote letters to Condoleezza Rice expressing concern that Christian, Yazidi and Mandaean communities “appear to be targeted by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militants,” to the extent that they faced “potential extinction from their ancient homeland,” and asking what steps were being taken to protect them.
A 2007 State Department report, only issued because the situation was dire enough that Congress required recommendations, acknowledged a range of abuses—from KRG interference in the political affairs of the Nineveh Plain, including mass electoral fraud, backed by violence, that effectively disenfranchised residents politically altogether, as well as the expropriation of aid money. But the report concluded that: “on the basis of relative need … it would be inappropriate to single out this group [Assyrians] for special attention.”
The self-indicting clarity in this assertion—that American policy effectively permitted the targeting of Assyrians—from a redacted report, was extre