08/10/2014 08:11 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2014

Hell's Problems: Genocide and 'Humanitarian Intervention'

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE via Getty Images

"Hell" is religious term that means the extreme of evil and suffering, and without a doubt, one of those extremes is genocide.

There seems little doubt that the self-styled radical Islamist group, Islamic State, is committing genocide in Iraq, certainly against the Yazidis, and has targeted Christians to "convert or die" as well.

The question is, can you bomb and drone Hell back into the pit of human evil from which it came?

The world has come to think so, but we need to be very cautious in making this case. Fixing "Hell" is the very definition of moral dilemma.

In fact, it is important, in my view, not to mistake this U.S. effort in Iraq for anything other than military interventionism wrapped in humanitarianism. That does not mean, however, the humanitarianism should not be undertaken. That's why this is a "problem from Hell."

Genocide is called "A Problem from Hell" by Samantha Power, now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, in her extensive 2003 book by that name because genocide is the destruction of human life for the sake of wiping a whole people from the earth. As the United Nations defines genocide, it is "any act committed with the idea of destroying in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."

The United States has now intervened in Iraq, both with humanitarian supplies and by bombing Islamic State targets.

The doctrine of humanitarian intervention, or what is now more technically called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was developed following the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s. While the Holocaust during World War II had produced solemn pledges of "never again," the fact was that genocide did happen again, and especially in regard to Rwanda, the world did nothing.

I devote considerable attention, when I teach Peacemaking and Human Security courses, as this syllabus with Sharon Welch shows to the question of humanitarian intervention, and how Responsibility to Protect fits in with that concept.

States rarely, if ever, act out of purely out of humanitarian impulses, as the "Christian Realist" theologian and ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr, was fond of reminding us. President Obama has actually stated, in making his case for the humanitarian aid and bombing campaign in Iraq, that this also to protect Americans he sent there as advisors. But that is not, I believe, the only American interests we are protecting there. Islamic State threatens a massive destabilization of the whole Middle East, an area already dangerously destabilized. But will American military reengagement help reduce conflict in the region, or exacerbate it? Our last two interventions, in the Bush administrations wars, are a large part of this current catastrophe in the making.

There is a strong concern, not only on my part but on the part of others, that Responsibility to Protect is a doctrine that makes a "soft case" for military interventionism. This, in fact, is an argument made by an extensive, and excellent May 2014 report by the Global Policy Forum, In Whose Name? A Critical View on the Responsibility to Protect.

An examination of the genesis of R2P suggests that the facts are on the side of those who see military action as the core of the doctrine... Military force is central to the ICISS [International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty] report, and its militarism is at times striking... R2P proponents often argue that the real risk comes from too few military inventions.

The case is made by proponents of R2P that prevention is the goal, but the prevention case is made by other doctrines, notably that of Just Peace. What distinguishes R2P from the Just Peace paradigm, in fact, is that R2P is an unstable mix of peacemaking and forceful interventionism. R2P incorporates "military intervention within the same norm as conflict prevention and peace support operations [and that] skews the whole R2P doctrine towards the extreme option of coercive intervention, which tends to become the center of the entire principle," per the Global Policy Forum report.

So what are we supposed to do? Let Islamic State bury women and children alive, brutally massacre religious groups and drive them out of their homes?

No. That's what makes this a hellish problem.

Just do not mistake this for anything other than military intervention that has some humanitarian goals, namely getting supplies to people who desperately need them and helping provide a safety corridor so that they might escape Islamic State. But when you see bombers and drones in action, know that this is military interventionism to "protect American interests," and not mistake it for anything else.