The World Will Blame President Obama if Iraq Falls

The White House is under intense pressure to use American force to save the people trapped by terrorists on the mountaintop. And it understands why.

An Iraqi Yazidi family that fled the violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, sit at at a school where they are taking shelter in the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, on August 5, 2014. Islamic State (IS) Sunni jihadists ousted the Peshmerga troops of Iraq's Kurdish government from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, forcing thousands of people from their homes. The Yazidis, are a small community that follows a 4,000-year-old faith and have been repeatedly targeted by jihadists who call them 'devil-worshipers' because of their unique beliefs and practices. 
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 7, 2014, 1:13 p.m.

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.

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