The Khmer Rouge came to mind when the horrific acts of Islamic State (IS)/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) first drew our attention. In 1975, not all that long ago, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire population of Phnom Penh, more than 2.5 million people, to camps in the countryside after capturing the Cambodian capital.
It’s impossible to tally the total number dead with any precision, but it is generally assumed that the Khmer Rouge killed between one million and two million people during their reign. Thousands more died of malnutrition or disease, and the upper classes of Cambodian society were all but wiped out. The killing continued unabated until Vietnamese troops, tired of border skirmishes with the Khmer Rouge, invaded in 1979 and sent the Khmer Rouge back to the jungles. (Fletcher, A Brief History Of The Khmer Rouge)
The beheadings of a few Westerners that have galvanized public and political opinion in this country, awful as they are for individuals and families involved, amount to a minor item in the IS portfolio. An Amnesty International report describes the Islamic State’s “systematic targeting of minorities in northern Iraq” as “[e]thnic cleansing on historic scale.” Thousands of refugees have fled their homes in the face of massacres, abductions, and other persecution, their number including Kurds, Christians, Shiites, and other Muslims whose practice of their religion is insufficiently pure.
IS public relations videos portray gruesome celebration of brutal and heinous acts that almost defy comprehension until we recognize that we have seen them before. This is far from the first time people have done ungodly things to one another, and on a grand scale, in the name of religion or some utopian ideal. Perhaps there is a religion somewhere that does not have buckets of blood on its hands, whatever its professed tenets. It is easier to find examples of behavior we all wish was behind us. The inquisition. Europe’s wars of religion. Israel in Gaza. Hindu violence against Muslims and Christians, not to mention domestic violence against women. Buddhism in Japan during World War II, exposed for the West in 1997 by Brian Daizen Victoria in Zen at War, a book that
… sent shock waves through Zen circles. Even those previously aware that the Japanese Buddhist establishment had supported the nation’s militarist and imperialist policies before and during World War II were surprised to learn how thoroughly Zen leaders and institutions had colluded in the war effort. (Foster and Snyder, The Fog of World War II: Setting the Record Straight on D.T. Suzuki)
There is a sense of moral obligation that one not stand idly by and watch the parade of atrocities without making an effort to put a stop to it. There is an impulse to do something, maybe almost anything. Who among us is inclined to say it is wrong to intervene in the face of what we now witness in Syria and Iraq? The utter vileness and awful scale of acts that lie beyond any conceivable justification make it all the more difficult to stand up to the hysteria that has much of Washington and the punditocracy in its grip.
We do well to ask, before we act, what in the world might the US do that is even marginally more likely to have an outcome for good than for ill. Barack Obama is anything but an eager warrior, for which we should be grateful. Nonetheless he bends under tremendous pressure from within his administration and outside. Samantha Power and Susan Rice, no less than John McCain and Lindsey Graham, learned nothing from the ill-advised invasion and hamhanded occupation of Iraq, which contributed mightily to the conditions under which IS came about. Obama’s reluctance and Chuck Hagel’s presence on the national security team are not much by way of reassurance, but that is what we have. The administration throws stuff at the wall hoping something will stick. Find some so-called friendly group to arm. Lob a few bombs. Call out the drones. None of it inspires confidence.
Meantime, the Senator from South Carolina screeches like a peacock with his tail feathers in a vise. He and McCain, with not a doubt in their military minds, would have American boots on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, who knows where else, for ten, twenty, thirty years. We will need more boots if they have their way.
There are people with experience and expertise in these matters who are critical of the conventional wisdom. Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and W. Patrick Lang, retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence and U.S. Army Special Forces, are two to whom I turn regularly, not to be taken as to gospel, but for fresh and informed perspective. Lang offers this view:
No western policy or strategy will be able to stop this process [development of a new state, the Sunni Islamic Caliphate, over which there appear to be many contenders for control, not just IS] because the idea has reached maturity within the mental genes of too many young Sunnis to be derailed. Western policy should be fashioned to treat the problem as a problem of balances of power between the competing regional powers and to reap whatever advantages that can be obtained by playing the competitors against each other, while staying out of the heart of the conflict as much as possible.
As I see it, the only policy that may be viewed 25 years hence as a wise and successful one will be a policy where the west stands back and lets the Islamic players slug it out among themselves. If the West continues its current R2P [responsibility to protect] policies, when we look back from 2040 (if the human race survives that long) the current western policy will be seen simply as stupid and suicidal.
Somehow, the language of the western meme covering this thing needs to be modified to permit US to step back and watch the upcoming gory show without wading in too deep into the sucking quicksand. (Lang, Should Br’er Bear be takin a tear in the bri’rpatch wit Br’er Rabbit? – Origin)
Colonel Lang’s assessment is a good antidote to the cocksure proponents of American intervention, from the neocon cabal that called the shots during the Bush-Cheney era to Powers-Rice and McCain-Graham, bedfellows whatever their differences in semantics and style.
Govind Acharya, Fear and Injustice Continues 10 Years After Gujarat Riots, Amnesty International Human Rights Now Blog, 1 March 2012.
Amnesty International, Gruesome evidence of ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq as Islamic State moves to wipe out minorities, 1 September 2014
BBC, Syria Iraq: The Islamic State militant group, 2 August 2014
Juan Cole, The Arab Political Crisis: It isn’t a Matter of Civilization and it isn’t Unique, Informed Comment, 21 September 2014
Dan Fletcher, “A Brief History Of The Khmer Rouge,” Time, 17 February 2009
W. Patrick Lang, Should Br’er Bear be takin a tear in the bri’rpatch wit Br’er Rabbit? – Origin, Sic Semper Tyrannis, 15 September 2014
Human Rights Watch, India: Stop Hindu-Christian Violence in Orissa, 30 December 2007
Allan M. Jallon, Meditating On War And Guilt, Zen Says It’s Sorry, The New York Times, 11 January 2003
Simon Maloy, America’s most terrified senator: Lindsey Graham’s never-ending doomsday visions, Salon, 15 September 2014
Hisham Melhem, The Barbarians Within Our Gates: Arab civilization has collapsed. It won’t recover in my lifetime, POLITICO Magazine, 18 September 2014
Robert Whymant, From the archive, 11 December 1979: Deposed Pol Pot gives interview in the jungleilThe Guardian, 11 December 2013