If he absolutely must, this is how Barack Obama goes back into Iraq.
With a toe in the water, with a clearly defined mission—one that sounds more like an isolated act of mercy than the renewed launch of hostilities. One that can be packaged and sold, as Obama did Thursday evening, for a skeptical and war-weary public that doesn't want troops on the ground and is increasingly mistrustful of the president's foreign policy. It was Obama, the original antiwar candidate, justifying military engagement in, of all places, Iraq.
But make no mistake, it might well mark the beginning of something this White House has been desperate to avoid, a betrayal of sorts of politician-Obama's reason for existence, of the first pledge he ever made to prospective voters. He was supposed to be taking us out, not getting us back in. And still, even after the president's remarks, it was difficult to discern exactly which national interest Obama was advancing in authorizing military strikes. What made this situation, now, different from all the crises both in Iraq and elsewhere around the world that had preceded it?
Thus, the president was very, very careful Thursday to distinguish this moment from say, Syria, where a "dire humanitarian crisis"—to use White House spokesman Josh Earnest's words earlier in the day--has raged for years, or from Nigeria, where innocent young girls disappear. The difference here, Obama said, was that Americans at the U.S. consulate in Erbil are in danger.
Speaking from the White House dining room, the president was quick to mention that threat before ever bringing up a secondary mission to protect thousands of Iraqi Yazidis and Christians stranded atop a mountain near the border. Another key distinction, senior administration officials noted, was that the U.S. was acting here on the behest of the Iraqi government and Kurdish security forces, giving it a sufficient legal basis for a strike. Obama's authorization for force, they stressed, only applies to Iraq and was not part of a wider strategy extending into, say, Syria or Lebanon. The focus, one aide said, "was extreme." The idea was this is containable.
Yet, Thursday had brought a different tone to this White House. This administration has sat and waited—waited as the conflict in Syria spilled across the border into northwest Iraq, waited as Sunni militants seized territory and money and drew close to Baghdad, waited for the al-Malaki government to reorganize itself so as not to force the White House to appear to take side in a brutal sectarian conflict. In June, Obama seemed reluctant to commit even advisers to assist the embattled Iraqi military. Critics accused him of being half-hearted about the whole thing.
But what the president called a "potential act of genocide" forced his hand. There was no bypassing his responsibility now. "They're without food, without water. People are starving. And children of dying of thirst," Obama said, clearly appealing to the better angels of his Democratic base. In briefings, aides emphasized the brutality of the militants, saying they wanted to "enslave women and kill men," and sought to "ethnically cleanse" the region, while clearly drawing a line connecting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to its progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, so as to make explicit just whom the U.S. was dealing with.
It remained unclear late Thursday just what the next steps would be. Should ISIS forces advance on Erbil, U.S. planes will strike to repel them. But officials also suggested that the Pentagon would not hesitate to act to protect Baghdad, as well, which would greatly escalate the conflict and stir the echoes of the Iraq War. (Which was declared to be over in 2011.)
Still, no matter the administration's rationale, the takeaway will be that it took the desperate straits of thousands trapped on a mountaintop to push the administration to act. Innocent Iraqis have been slaughtered and uprooted by ISIS for months, but this is the first time that Obama and his White House seemed fully engage in the problem. And the president's decision today may prompt other endangered peoples, whether they be in Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine, or elsewhere to ask what they need to do to attract the United States' attention and assistance.
Aides stressed Thursday that the hope remains that it will be Iraq, with new leadership, that ultimately resolves the crisis on the ground, not the American military.
"Even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there's no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq," the president told Americans.
But there was little doubt, after Obama's actions Thursday, that Iraq again falls squarely within America's national interest. The question is now simply how long it stays that way.
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