In sending warplanes back into the skies over Iraq, President Obama on Thursday night found himself exactly where he did not want to be. Hoping to end the war in Iraq, Mr. Obama became the fourth president in a row to order military action in that graveyard of American ambition…

“This is a slippery slope if I ever saw one,” said Phyllis Bennis, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a research organization for peace activists. “Whatever else we may have learned from the president’s ‘dumb war,’ it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.”…

To some, this is a crisis Mr. Obama brought on himself by not trying harder to leave a residual force behind at the end of 2011 and neglecting to recognize the growing threat as the civil war in Syria next door increasingly spilled over into Iraq. Some argued that a virtual state under ISIS control posed more than the humanitarian threat Mr. Obama seemed to be focused on…

“This is about America’s national security,” said Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador to Iraq under Mr. Bush and to Afghanistan under Mr. Obama. “We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the ISIS leader, “have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”

***

ISIS are fast-track Nazis. No messing about with a few property restrictions and intermarriage laws as a little light warm-up: They’re only in the business of “final solutions”, and they start on Day One and don’t quit until the last Christian and Yazidi is dead or fled. As I’ve often remarked about today’s exhaustively cleansed Maghreb, Levant and Araby, Islam is king on a field of corpses. But pikers like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Baathists, the House of Saud take their time. ISIS are shooting for the Guinness Book of Records.

***

For sheer, brutal efficiency, ISIL is several steps above Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram or even the Taliban. The closest analog I can think of is the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian movement that killed more than two million people in the mid-1970s. There was a reminder of those horrors this week, when two top Khmer Rouge leaders were finally sentenced for their crimes. In their remorseless advance through eastern Syria and northern Iraq, ISIL’s fighters have demonstrated the same iron will and discipline that Khmer Rouge deployed against the Cambodian army and the Cambodian people. In territory Al-Baghdadi controls, he uses the same tactics of intimidation and public punishment that Pol Pot used to cow his fellow Cambodians.

In its appetite for genocide, ISIL seems to borrow from Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. It, too, has identified for extermination entire categories of people. Its fighters have systematically rounded up groups of “unbelievers”—and remember, that can mean anybody, including their fellow Sunnis—and slaughtered them in a manner Heinrich Himmler would have approved of. If the disturbing photographs (and be warned, they are very disturbing) in this Washington Post story were in grainy black-and-white, they could have come from a Nazi death camp. And online videos of these mass killings clearly show miss the zealous glee with which the executioners go about the work.

That, then, is the nature of the monster on which the US is finally turning its guns. It will not die easily.

***

[T]he Islamic State has very simply put together a smarter offensive plan. Its push toward Irbil is believed by many not to be a move to take that city but to force the peshmerga to defend its capital, allowing the Islamic State to harden its grip on places nearby it’s more interesting in holding.

“No one is doing what ISIS is doing,” said Jessica Lewis, a research director at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, using an acronym for the Islamic State derived from its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “ISIS thins out and strategically targets their adversaries. They are more thoughtful about their offense.”

In Sunni-dominated Iraqi cities like Mosul and Fallujah, the Islamic State successfully co-opted or intimidated residents, allowing its forces to move in and take over. In Kurdish-defended areas, it’s forced the peshmerga to defend multiple locations along the lengthy frontier.

The Kurds have made no secret of their limitations. They have repeatedly asked the United States for help.

***

The enemy cannot be negotiated with. The Islamic State is rational by its own reasoning, but psychotic by standards of international law and justice. It wants to create a caliphate across the region and its fighters are not only prepared to die for it but would consider having a bomb dropped on them to be an honour. There is no Bashar al-Assad to contain with sanctions, no Pinochet to extradite and try. These people cannot be talked to, so military action is the only effective response. Frankly, they would respect that.

The objective is clear. Obama has stated that the action is limited to containing the spread of the Islamic State and ensuring that it does not drive into the Kurdish homeland or threaten Baghdad. This is not the beginning of one of those “nation building” exercises that rolls on for years. It is an immediate response to an immediate problem that does not bind the West into any further action. It also includes dropping food and water for refugees – something that, obviously, no one would oppose.

The West has a responsibility to do something. And so we return to the point above about the legacy of Iraq. Only a cruel amnesiac would look at what is happening to the Iraq’s religious minorities and say, “This has nothing to do with us.” It is everything to do with us.

***

Even for the more dovish among us, it is hard to make a good moral case against intervening to protect the Yazidis. Who can say the cause is not just? Reports suggest this is a genocide. Everybody agrees that ISIS (or IS) are vile, and that we should not treat them as a nation state – whatever they may say they are. Finally, having spent over a decade bungling its foreign policy, America has a war worth fighting…

If I were an Iraqi, I’d hardly be comforted by that statement – given America’s record in Mesopotamia. But the US is chiefly responsible for the current state of Iraq – you broke it, you fix it etc – and Obama’s move last night recognised that. Plus, as Rod Dreher puts it, ISIS needs killin’.

***

The Obama administration got some of its strongest endorsements from top Democrats — such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — and Democratic lawmakers who lead key national security committees in Congress, providing some cover from the criticism of anti-war liberals.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, who voted against authorizing the war in Iraq in 2002, said he backed Obama’s decision and said the reasons the president outlined for the airstrikes are “surely sufficient.”

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said she “strongly” supports Obama’s authorization for airstrikes — warning that ISIL was a “terrorist army” that was quickly broadening its influence in the region.

“It takes an army to defeat an army, and I believe that we either confront ISIL now or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger enemy in the future,” she said. “Inaction is no longer an option.”

***

Americans have so far been deeply ambivalent toward further military action in Iraq. A June Washington Post-ABC News poll found fewer than half, 45 percent, supported launching airstrikes against Sunni extremists in the country, and only 30 percent supported deploying ground troops. Separate surveys found majorities believing the U.S. does not have a responsibility to stop violence in the country…

Prevention of genocide and starvation is among the most potent arguments Obama could make for getting involved in Iraq. When a 2012 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans under what circumstances they would favor deploying U.S. troops, stopping a government from killing its own citizens topped the list with 70 percent in favor. In Iraq, Sunni extremist groups — not the government — are responsible for the killings, but the prevention of certain death is a great motivating factor nonetheless.

***

Obama stood by and watched as more territory fell to these vermin. He watched as thousands upon thousands of innocents were raped, tortured, and butchered. He watched as cultural treasures were destroyed, as Christians were slaughtered, as a patently obvious humanitarian and security crisis was unfolding right before his eyes. Still, other than to send in a very limited number of American “advisers,” Obama did next to nothing.

And now he wants to rescue the thousands from their mountaintop, while protecting American personnel as well? Well, he’s right to do so now. But he should have done so at least eight weeks ago. The people are starving on the mountain because Barack Obama allowed their homes, their towns, to be destroyed. They are there because the man who tried last night to sound like Mr. Tough Guy dithered for so many weeks like Hamlet on an endless-replay loop.

What moral clarity, pray tell, exists now that didn’t exist in June? What military advantages do we have now that we didn’t have then? (Obviously, we actually have fewer now.) What diplomatic gains have we achieved?

***

When Outnumbered ringleader Harris Faulkner noted that the president had focused on the little known Yazidis, who have not suffered as many casualties at the hands of ISIL as have Christians, Kirsten Powers, usually the most liberal of the panelists, tore the president a new one:

“He has not uttered the word ‘Christian,’ and now suddenly he throws it in with the Yazidis,” Powers said. “We’re not doing any airdrops to the Christians, who are refugees in the Kurdish region. [Virginia Congressman Frank] Wolf has taken to the floor, I think, seven days in a row now, pleading with the administration: Please help these people. They need humanitarian aid; they need drinking water. They have nothing. They’ve lost their homes; they’ve lost everything. The White House has done nothing; they’ve said nothing. And then the president goes on and goes into quite a lot of detail about the Yazidis, and never really gets into the specifics about Christians. I mean, it’s really unbelievable, and he has no right to invoke humantiarianism, because he is not a humanitarian president. A humanitarian president does not sit quietly by, while hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iraq [are uprooted or killed]– forget about the rest of the Middle East — and doesn’t say a word.”

***

If the Islamic State were to take over Erbil, they would endanger Iraq’s oil production and, by extension, global access to oil. Prices would surge at a time when Europe, which buys oil from Iraq, has still not escaped the global recession. Oil prices have already risen in response to the Islamic State’s threat to Erbil, and on Thursday, American oil companies Chevron and Exxon Mobile began evacuating their personnel from Kurdistan. But oil traders are predicting that American intervention could halt the rise. “In essence we find U.S. air strikes more bearish than bullish for oil as the act finally draws a line for IS and reinforces both the stability in south Iraq and in Kurdistan,” Oliver Jakob, a Swiss oil analyst, told Reuters…

The United States should worry about the global oil supply. It is important for global economic and political stability. And having a significant chunk of it fall into the hands of a group like the Islamic State should certainly be a concern. But if Obama is worried about the world’s oil supply, then he should say so forthrightly and not leave himself in a position where he will be unable to justify or explain further intervention after the airdrops to the Yazidis are completed. And the administration should also have a plan for making sure that in sending out the Air Force, it will actually end a dire threat to Iraq’s oil production and put Iraq back on its feet. In Libya, the U.S. and its partners succeeded in getting rid of Muammar Qaddafi, but not in resolving the country’s humanitarian crisis or in keeping its oil flowing. Oil production has plummeted as Libya has been plunged into anarchy after Qaddafi’s fall. The challenge in Erbil and Iraq is even more daunting.

***

We don’t have to wage a larger war in Iraq. Here are 10 reasons why we won’t.

1. ISIS will destroy itself. We don’t have to stamp out ISIS, because its growth is inherently limited. It picks too many fights and alienates too many people. It has already taken on the Iraqi army, the Kurds, the Turks, Iraqi Baathists, and many Iraqi Sunnis. Now it’s going head to head against Syria’s armed forces. As if that weren’t enough, ISIS went into Lebanon this week. ISIS also antagonizes civilians in its territory. People in Mosul are rebelling against its oppression. It won’t last…

3. We’re doing what only we can do. Lots of countries and Iraqi factions have a stake in stopping ISIS. But some tasks are beyond their power. Saving 40,000 people on a mountain seems to be one of those tasks. In his speech last night, Obama said the U.S. should step in when it has a mandate from the host government and “when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre.” Unique is an important caveat. It means we’ll stick to doing what others can’t do…

8. Some force now means less force later. You can’t deliver humanitarian aid in a war zone without military support. The cargo planes we use to drop food and medicine fly low and slow. If one of them is shot down, imagine the escalation. To forestall that scenario, we’re sending limited air power up front, in the form of fighter escorts. Good move.

***

While U.S. airstrikes and drops of supplies may prevent the terrorist forces from massacring the Yazidi sect or toppling the pro-Western regime in Kurdistan, Mr. Obama lacks a plausible plan for addressing the larger threat posed by the Islamic State. In recent weeks, a host of senior U.S. officials have described the danger in hair-curling terms: The Islamic State forces, which have captured large numbers of U.S.-supplied heavy weapons, threaten not only the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, but also Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. With hundreds of Western recruits, they have the ambition and capability to launch attacks against targets in Europe and the United States.

Yet by the White House’s own account, the measures ordered by Mr. Obama are not intended to defeat the Islamic State or even to stop its bloody advances in most of the region…

It’s past time for Mr. Obama to set aside a policy that is both minimalist and unrealistic. The United States should offer sustained military support to friendly forces that fight the Islamic State, beginning with the Kurds and including moderate Syrian rebels and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen.

***

A former Special Forces officer and Iraq veteran described how the troops currently on the ground, some 800 elite special operations soldiers, could impact the battle: “If SOF [special operations forces] advisors moved to the front, they would be able to help organize and plan the maneuver of Peshmerga, provide up-to-the-minute intelligence to protect line units, and give greater speed and fidelity to close air support. It would also give a tremendous morale boost to Peshmerga units under fire.”

That could be a great boon to the Peshmerga, but not without costs. Moving U.S. special operations forces onto the battlefield, even as advisors, “greatly raises the profile of American involvement and will eventually lead to highly visible American casualties,” according to the Special Forces veteran.

President Obama made his political career, in part, on his opposition to the Iraq war. Those casualties are something he is desperately trying to avoid. But the situation on the ground in Iraq may leave him no choice.

***

During a conference call with a National Security Council expert yesterday, a reporter asked why this mission to protect the Kurds and Yazidis, and the Americans in Erbil, was different from the chaos in Libya, where we evacuated our embassy staff from Tripoli. The answer should be obvious: the chaos in Libya is a civil war among competing tribes. It is part of a regional struggle to redraw the straight lines on the maps that were drawn by Europeans 100 years ago. It will be a bloody fight for a generation and, in most cases, will be peripheral to our national interests. But when a terrorist group establishes an actual state, as seems to be the case with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it is an entirely different story. The world cannot tolerate a safe haven from which attacks can be launched against religious minorities, as is now happening, or against other countries (including the US)–which is the stated intent of the ISIS leadership. That is why we took action against the Taliban government in Afghanistan 13 years ago. The urgency is no less now–and, indeed, is perhaps greater, given the honed strength of this extremely well-armed and well-funded terrorist organization.

There has been, and probably will be, endless debate about who “lost” Iraq. We don’t have the luxury of wasting time or political energy on that now. What’s needed is a clear and united sense of purpose…as clear and united as it was on September 12, 2001. Our war against Al Qaeda-style extremism isn’t over; it may have only just begun.

***

***