[A]irstrikes against targets within the cities that the Islamic State controls will almost inevitably cause disproportionate harm to innocents. The West must not adopt the tactics of Assad. Ground forces capable of discriminating between Islamic State militants and civilians will almost certainly be necessary to dislodge the militants from the cities they control. And expelling them is essential, as the caliphate cannot exist in the eyes of its devotees in the absence of territorial control.
Yet to send Western soldiers into combat against the militants would be perceived by Islamic State members and potential recruits as confirmation of prophesies in which they believe — fantasies involving the reappearance of Crusaders in their Holy Land. For this reason and others, it is important that the forces that purge the cities and towns should consist predominantly of soldiers indigenous to the region: Shiites, Kurds and, one hopes, Sunnis who detest the barbarism of their co-religionists in the Islamic State.--Jeff McMahan "Syria is a Modern Holocaust," The Washington Post.
Professor McMahan is writing in the "In Theory" section of the Post, apparently invited to write on just war theory (a topic on which he is an acknowledged expert); the Post reminds its readers that he is the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford." Oddly, what follows has little to do with just war theory. Rather, McMahan, who repeatedly talks about what "we" and "the West" must do (and should have done during the Holocaust), actively calls for the continuation of air-bombing of "Islamic State’s sources of revenue are appropriate and should continue, provided they can be carried out without significant harm to innocent bystanders;" in addition he advocates a proxy-war in order to "purge" the soldiers from the territory they hold.*
I turn to the internal tensions with and problems of McMahan's position below, but the reason why I am interested in commenting on his editorial is -- not because I am mistrustful of the deployment of the no more Auschwitz analogy (which I am), but -- because it is a salutary reminder of the ways in which analytical ethics is especially unsuited for commentary on political, newsy events of the day (recall this post). Too much such ethics when used in the public is either merely in the service of politics or exemplary of the dangers of doing ethics without political history and little knowledge of the world (or both). I am mistrustful of such analytic ethics because it does not serve to make -- invisible or vilified! -- others more humane to any of the combatants and outsiders.
First. the interesting bit: I am unfamiliar with an earlier instance of a call for Humanitarian intervention by proxy (without UN seal of approval). For, the core of McMahan's position is that intervention is required not so much from "self-defense" to prevent future "massacres" in the "West," (that "threat" is called relatively "minor,") but rather to end "monstrous crimes" that the Islamic State directs against its own subjects and that "have been occurring for more than a year while we have stood by and allowed them to continue. It is shameful that the aim of defeating the Islamic State has become an urgent priority in the West only after we ourselves have come to feel threatened."+ In addition to our shame, McMahan invokes his "visceral repugnance" at the "daily atrocities perpetrated by members of the Islamic State." That's the humanitarian part. But rather than calling for boots on the grounds supplied by the hegemonic powers (USA, UK, NATO, etc.) in the context of, say, a UN Resolution (international institutions and international law as such are notably absent in McMahan's piece),** McMahan invites us to let proxies do the 'purging.' McMahan is short on specifics, but presumably he advocates sending arms and money (as well as provide training) to states and non-state actors allied against Islamic State. So, by 'proxy' he does not mean sending mercenaries.
Leaving aside to what degree it is cowardly to ask others to die for your principles, it is notable that while McMahan's rhetoric is about some (undefined) we and 'the West' that is contrasted with barbarism -- not reflecting on the fact that Auschwitz/Birkenau is part of the history of 'the West' -- the actual killing and dying is farmed out to some indigenous others ("Shiites, Kurds and, one hopes, Sunnis"). The opposite of barbarism is probably either civilization or humanity. The problem is, it's hard to make the case that we are humane -- as McMahan recognizes with admirable clarity -- given that we have policies that 'turn away the principal victims" of Islamic State.
I discern in McMahan's piece two reasons for urging fighting by proxy: (i) indigenous soldiers will do better at not killing innocents; (ii) indigenous soldiers are less likely to generate further radicalizations of innocents. This (i-ii) may be true sometimes. But (i-ii) are not obvious in the circumstances at hand (in which he advocates ongoing bombing by 'the West!'). On (i) McMahan is essentially advocating taking sides in (multi-fronted) civil war. But it is a trope going back to, I think, Aristotle that civil wars are the most ferocious wars. While the trope may be false -- WWI and WWII were not primarily civil wars, yet plenty ferocious --, it is pretty clear that civil wars tend to be very savage/dirty, and the wars within Syria and Iraq can be understood, in part, as being part of ongoing Shiite/Sunni civil wars (and Kurdish wars of independence). On (ii) within Islam Apostasy is a very serious crime that in many Islamic countries generates criminal punishment. If indigenous soldiers are understood as apostates (and/or belonging to apostate sects) it is by no means obvious why having them do the fighting this should prevent further radicalization. If 'we in the West' could have learned anything from our own history, it is that intra-religious civil war tends to be barbaric (cf. Thirty year war; much of the 16th and 17th century, etc.)
Moreover, after three or four decades of fighting by Islamic proxy (going back to the Jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan), we should by now be aware of the downside to this strategy. By arming groups that are enemies of one's enemies and that one does not control, one opens the door(s) to having those very same groups aim their fire at us. This is by now such a familiar fact, one can only express surprise it does not figure in McMahan's analysis at all. I am not claiming this will happen (the long-term, strategic interests of the Kurds may well be pro-Western), but it has happened and is also part of the back-story behind the rise of Islamic State (which is, in part, composed of Iraqi officers we armed to fight Iran, and other folk we encouraged to fight Assad).
As an aside, here I am not devoting much attention to the morality and practicality of humanitarian intervention; humanitarian interventions are not always unmitigated goods (latest example: Libyia 2011). Either way, if one advocates for humanitarian intervention by one's fellow citizens then it strikes me as more legitimate to talk of us/we.
So, to sum up. It is possible that McMahan's position is, in fact, the wisest political one to take (to put it crudely: it minimizes our losses in the short run). For all I know the alternatives may really be worse. But it is not obvious that it is the most ethical course. If anything, if we reflect on the nature of responsible public speech, McMahan's essay falls short of the demand to avoid advocating policies when all the knowable downside risks fall all on others (that are neither represented in our political processes nor imaginatively treated as being part of 'us'). Perhaps this demand is sometimes excessive, but when it comes to matters of life and death (war) it is a minimal obligation.++
*On the factual level the strategy proposed is nearly identical, it seems, to the one pursued by the Obama Administration (except the the Administration has a prior history of involvement, including the crossing of "Red Lines" and all that.) I have to admit that I find the language of 'purging' problematic. But that's for another time.
+ It is not obvious the Islamic State is really more barbaric than Assad's regime; what is different is that Islamic State loudly advertises its deeds. It is also worth making qualifications about the genocidal character of Islamic State (if the base-line is Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ruanda, and even the Assad family or Saddam Husseim).
**Not entirely surprising given that McMahan is part of the self-described revisionist school that has been rather skeptical of the privileged place of states and existing international institutions in thinking about morality of war (for a quick intro see here and here).
++ I thank Ori Belkind and John Grey for helpful comments; neither should be held responsible for the content of this piece.