How Obama Brings America Back Into Iraq

The president who vowed to withdraw sets limits on a return mission.

US President Barack Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, DC, August 7, 2014. Obama said he authorized air strikes and relief supply drops in Iraq to prevent 'genocide' by Islamist extremists against minorities. 'We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide,' Obama said, in an address as he announced military action. 
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Aug. 7, 2014, 7:11 p.m.

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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