Now, almost six years into the presidency, the Obama administration seems to be coming to a belated acknowledgement that many of its strategic assumptions, often held as cherished dogmas, are not valid. President Obama’s decision to order airstrikes on the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — one of its several names) makes him, as Peter Baker of the New York Times astutely points out, the fourth consecutive American president to order military action in Iraq. It also highlights the many strategic assumptions that the White House has to jettison as it confronts the disparity between the world as the administration imagined it and the world as it actually is.
To be clear, I support these airstrikes and the accompanying humanitarian relief operation for the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. The airdrops of food and water represent one of those moments when American capabilities and moral commitments make our nation singularly equipped to lead. The Islamic State’s advances on Kurdistan represent a significant new threat to American interests (including our consulate in Erbil and the many American citizens working in the city) and to longtime partners of the United States, and a significant new demonstration of the Islamic State’s malignant lethality. Like many other observers (and a few beleaguered voices within the administration), I also favor other steps the White House hasn’t taken yet, such as increased security assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army, in the context of a renewed American commitment to Iraq.
But it is apparent that Obama’s reluctant announcement of these strikes reveals a president agonizing over the dawning realization that his previous strategic assumptions have been incorrect. The president admitted as much in his revealing interview with Thomas Friedman, in which Obama conceded his failure to plan for post-conflict stabilization in Libya after overseeing the operation to topple Qaddafi.