After weeks of indecision and inaction, Barack Obama finally authorized military action as well as humanitarian airlifts on behalf of the targets of genocide in Iraq. In a late-evening speech from the State Dining Room, Obama warned that the US would not re-enter Iraq in force, but could not stand idle while a genocide unfolded either:
The strikes will attempt to stop the ISIS march on Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone:
A senior administration official described the airstrike authorization as “narrow,” but outlined a number of broad contingencies in which they could be launched, including a possible threat to U.S. personnel in Baghdad from possible breaches in a major dam Islamist forces seized Thursday that could flood the Iraqi capital.
U.S. aircraft also are authorized to launch airstrikes if the military determines that Iraqi government and Kurdish forces are unable to break the siege that has stranded tens of thousands of civilians belonging to the minority Yazidi sect atop a barren mountain outside the northern town of Sinjar.
“As we can provide air support to relieve that pressure, the president has given the military the authority to do so,” the senior official said. He said that congressional leaders had been consulted, but that Obama had the legal authority as commander in chief to launch the strikes to protect U.S. personnel and national security interests.
Obama has sent more than 700 U.S. troops to Iraq since June to protect the U.S. Embassy and international airport in Baghdad and facilities in Irbil, and to assess the capabilities of Iraqi forces.
But he repeated his pledge that no ground combat troops would be returned to Iraq, where the last U.S. forces withdrew at the end of 2011.
The Kurds and Iraqis expressed gratitude, but ISIS continued to expand its territorial grip:
At least three more towns were taken by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), witnesses told NBC News on Friday. The seizures of Hamdanyah, Bashiqa and Bartella occurred on Wednesday. A string of victories by the ISIS and its allies have sent Iraq’s minorities – including thousands of Christians – fleeing for their lives, exacerbating the country’s already-dire humanitarian crisis. A senior U.S. defense official told NBC News that “a number of U.S. military aircraft” had successfully delivered food and water and had “safely exited the immediate airspace” around the trapped refugees.
Obama may deny that the US will return to Iraq in force, but as the AP’s Julie Pace argues, events may overtake Obama’s reluctance. The catastrophe in Iraq has already proven Obama wrong, she writes:
While the situation may be evolving quickly, the conditions that returned the U.S. to the brink of military action in Iraq can be traced back months – or to the president’s critics, even years.
As recently as January, Obama was publicly dismissive of the Islamic State group, which at the time was under the al-Qaida banner. In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, he said comparing the upstart group to the terror network established by Osama bin Laden was like comparing a jayvee basketball team to an NBA squad.
“I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian,” Obama said.
Even at the time, U.S. intelligence and defense officials were warning about the threat that could be posed by the Islamic State, which had strengthened in Syria amid the chaos of that country’s bloody civil war. But Obama’s comments reflected his limited appetite for wading back into Iraq or for starting a new military engagement in Syria, where he authorized an air assault last summer after a chemical weapons attack but never gave the order for a strike.
Obama took the correct, and in terms of national and international security, the only possible steps last night in ordering airlifts for the refugees and airstrikes to relieve the siege that threatens to massacre them. However, it also shows that the fantasy world constructed by this administration has collapsed entirely. Obama still insists that only the Iraqis can restore security in Iraq, but that’s clearly impossible in the short run, and continuous denial has now left the Kurds vulnerable to annihilation, too.
The Kurds have spent the last 23 years living in peace and freedom, relying on the US to protect their interests while being caught between the Turks, Iranians, and Iraqis. Walking away from the Kurds after their long support of our efforts to stabilize Iraq even at the expense of their own dreams of independence would be a betrayal that would send shock waves around the world to other groups working with the US — especially in Afghanistan. The Kurds will be the canary in the coal mine of American credibility for decades to come.
In the meantime, it will take more than a couple of airstrikes to stop the genocides of ISIS to come. The so-called Islamic State and its leadership is perhaps the most explicitly bloodthirsty regime to arise in generations or perhaps centuries, and nothing short of utter defeat will stop them from continuing to annihilate all those who do not bow down to them. The US and the West will have come to grips with this reality sooner or later, and in terms of lives lost and the effort necessary to stop ISIS, sooner would be much more preferable.