The world will not blame the Iraqi government if the children and women huddled atop Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq die of hunger and exposure. Nor will Pope Francis blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki if the Islamic extremists attacking the country slaughter the 40,000 Christians and other minorities who have fled to the mountaintop. The fact is that the world, from the pontiff in the Vatican to the coal miner in West Virginia, will blame President Obama.
That is why the president found himself under such intense pressure to act on Thursday, facing calls from around the world to marshal American might in a way to both rush humanitarian aid to the refugees in Iraq and punish the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who are trying to kill them.
It was notable that the pope’s plea for help was not directed at Iraq’s putative government. “His Holiness addresses an urgent appeal to the international community to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now underway, to act to protect those affected or threatened by violence and to provide aid, especially for the most urgent needs of the many who have been forced to flee and who depend on the solidarity of others,” said the statement issued by the Vatican on Thursday.
While the president was huddled with his military advisers in Washington assessing his options before making his decision, he could not help but feel the pressure. And perhaps no one could better understand that pressure than a man who routinely attended such meetings under three presidents and famously codified the “Pottery Barn Rule” prior to the launch of the Iraq War in 2003. According to author Bob Woodward, Colin Powell told President George W. Bush: “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.” He distilled the rule as “You break it, you own it.”
A decade later and after millions of American dollars, thousands of casualties, and seemingly hundreds of different policies, Iraq is very much broken. Even though he has boasted of “ending” the U.S. role in the war and even though he didn’t create the situation, Obama very much owns the mess. And he finds himself on a timetable not of his choosing and very much at odds with his policy.
That policy has been clear ever since ISIS started gobbling up Iraqi territory and terrorizing the Iraqi people, meeting only ineffective response from the Iraqi military supposedly trained by the United States: First, force Maliki to reform his government, broaden his sectarian appeal, and send a signal to all of Iraq that Baghdad could represent and protect them all. Only then could military help come from the United States.
But this situation, which the White House concedes is an immediate humanitarian catastrophe with lives hanging in the balance, cannot wait for Maliki to get his politics together. As reporters repeatedly reminded press secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday, these people are already dying.
That forced Obama to square his aversion to using military force abroad with his humanitarian urges. After the United States stood idly by in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide, President Clinton promised the world that “never again” would the United States be blind to genocide. Obama’s instincts were to keep that promise. But those instincts seemed to be at war with his desire to stay out of foreign wars. That brought renewed attention to the conditions the president laid out in 2011 to justify involvement in Libya’s civil war.
In an address to the nation from the East Room on March 18, 2011, the president said he was impelled to act by a situation similar in many respects to the current crisis in Iraq. “Here is why this matters to us,” he said then. Without international action, he said, there would be “atrocities against his people.” He added, “Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.” He concluded, “And that’s why the United States has worked with our allies and partners to shape a strong international response at the United Nations.”
That speech is as close as it gets to outlining an Obama Doctrine for humanitarian situations. It is another reason why the pressure on the White House is so intense. The world knows that the United States “broke” Iraq and “owns” the mess, and is waiting to see if the Obama Doctrine that applied in 2011 still applies today.