President Obama announced Thursday that he had authorized targeted airstrikes in Iraq and carried out a humanitarian airdrop to aid thousands of religious minorities trapped in the mountains by Sunni militants. [...] Obama made clear that he believes the religious minorities, which include Christians and Yazidis, "a small and ancient religious sect," faced the possibility of genocide at the hands of terrorist forces unless the U.S. intervened. He said he had authorized targeted air strikes to help Iraqi forces break the siege at the base of the mountain to protect the trapped civilians.
Since the U.S. war in Iraq ended, and American troops returned home, it's fair to say President Obama has been reluctant to re-engage militarily in Iraq. Our role in the country, the White House argued, was over. It's time for Iraq to operate as an independent nation.
But as conditions changed in Iraq, so too has the president's willingness to intervene.
The administration was eager yesterday to make clear what this isn't -- we're not invading Iraq; we're not pursuing "regime change"; we're not looking for imaginary WMD; we're not deploying boots on the ground. Watching the president's remarks, the two words that stood out for me were "targeted" and "genocide" -- the latter reinforced the argument that we have a good reason to intervene; the former was a reminder that Obama is eyeing a very limited mission.
"I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that," he said. "I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that's what we've done. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."
So why intervene? As the president sees it, these circumstances check a series of boxes: a U.S. ally has asked for our help; we have an opportunity to prevent a possible genocide; and we have the capacity to have a positive impact on the crisis. What's more, there are dozens of Americans at a consulate in Erbil, whose safety is clearly at risk.
"[W[hen the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action," Obama said. "That's my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief. And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That's a hallmark of American leadership. That's who we are."
Questions, however, remain.
The U.S. mission involves preventing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, depending on who you ask) from advancing on Erbil, while also launching a humanitarian air operation and protecting Christians and Yazidis from a brutal massacre.
To be sure, those seem like noble goals, and by all appearances this bears little resemblance to the Bush/Cheney policy, What's more, this mission will not include the deployment of American ground troops.
But as is always the case with any mission, the next question is what happens if the effort falls short. If ISIS ignores the warnings, what kind of sustained military intervention is the president prepared to make?
Or put another way, if targeted airstrikes fail to achieve their intended goals, what happens then?
For now, the answers to those questions are unclear, though I imagine many in Iraq really don't care. Obama told Americans last night, "Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, 'There is no one coming to help.' Well today, America is coming to help."