While it must have been difficult for a president who campaigned in part on the promise to extricate America from the war in Iraq to return to that country with limited airstrikes and humanitarian aid, he had little choice.
Battlefield gains by murderous Islamist militants have forced Obama’s hand. Airlifting food and water to civilians trapped on a mountain is clearly the right thing to do. But “limited airstrikes” carry the risk of mission creep, leading to wider engagement, unless they are tightly controlled.
Those airstrikes began Friday, with two F-18 fighters dropping 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery target near Erbil. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants were using the artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending their capital near U.S. forces, according to Pentagon Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Obama has to walk a fine line between aiding those trapped on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, as well as American citizens in Erbil and Baghdad, and getting involved in what could become a full-scale war against ISIS. The president said the mission is focused on helping those fleeing the militants, whom he described as “barbaric.” “America is coming to help,” he told the Iraqis.
The Kurds in the north have been a loyal and reliable ally, much more so than the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the Kurds are bending under the ISIS onslaught. The immediate need is to help the tens of thousands of Yazidis and other refugees fleeing ISIS, many of them besieged on Mount Sinjar. The Yazidis are a pre-Islamic religious sect with roots in Zoroastrianism. They face execution by ISIS, which views them as apostates.
The president up to this point has resisted calls to get more involved in defending Iraq, even after ISIS seized Fullujah, captured at great cost by U.S. forces during the nearly nine-year war. The war left 4,500 American troops dead and more than 32,000 wounded. It cost America nearly $3 trillion. Estimates on the number of Iraqi civilian fatalities range into the hundreds of thousands.
All of this blood spilled and money spent could not produce an Iraqi government that can stand on its own feet. While is unlikely that “limited airstrikes” will change that equation, they are a worthy effort if they can prevent the genocide of the Yazidis. It would be even better if our allies joined in the effort.
After pulling American forces out of Iraq at the end of 2011, the president hardly wants to return to another full-scale war there: “As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq.”
As long as this remains a humanitarian mission and America does not get pulled into a prolonged commitment in Iraq, then the decision to help those trapped Iraqis is the correct one.