Why Obama acted on Iraq
By: Philip Ewing
August 8, 2014 12:23 AM EDT
The threat of a double nightmare this week forced President Barack Obama to do something he likely hoped he’d never have to — order the use of force in Iraq.
American warplanes based in the Middle East now are authorized to attack the Sunni fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Obama announced on Thursday night, after a lethal, coordinated offensive threatened not one, but two horrific outcomes:
First, a deadly attack on the Kurdish capital of Erbil, home to stalwart allies of the United States as well as a cadre of American diplomats and special operators who have been helping manage the Iraq crisis.
Second, genocide — the systematic murder of tens of thousands of members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, who fled up a mountainside to escape ISIL. Al Qaeda in Iraq extremists who preceded ISIL killed 700 Yazidis in 2007, senior administration officials said, and ISIL’s seizure of control in northern Iraq means practitioners of the ancient religion are being targeted again on an even worse scale.
On Thursday night, Obama drew no new “red lines,” but in contrast to a showdown with Syria in which he ultimately opted not to “reach for the gun,” as Defense Secretary Robert Gates used to say, this time the president authorized direct action.
If ISIL gets too close to Erbil or it appears that American might could help free the Yazidis, U.S. military warplanes will have a green light for weapons release, the White House said. They had not attacked as of early Friday but the situation was moving so quickly there was no telling when such strikes might happen.
“If we see actions anywhere in Iraq that threaten our personnel or facilities, we stand prepared to take targeted action to protect them,” one senior administration official said. Obama and other White House officials took pains to stress that no scenario would involve large numbers of combat troops returning to Iraq.
Obama has tried to hold out from taking what the Pentagon calls “kinetic” military action since Mosul and much Iraq’s north fell to ISIL last month. Washington wants Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of the picture and White House press secretary Josh Earnest said earlier Thursday that he did not want any government in Baghdad to be able to take refuge behind American military power.
But as Obama made clear on Thursday night, the danger for atrocities has grown too great.
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”
Three Air Force cargo planes dropped food and water to try to help the Yazidis sustain their position, and the Defense Department made clear that it’s ready to launch another airdrop if required. Two Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighters escorted the cargo aircraft, and a defense official made clear to POLITICO that the fighters would be ready in case ISIL tried to target the resupply aircraft.
The Sunni fighters’ exact air defense capabilities have been a major question mark as American officials in Washington have mulled how or whether to use American air power in Iraq. The U.S. never sold Iraq shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, officials say, but they do not know what kind of Iraqi or other weapons ISIL scooped up when it scattered Iraq’s army in June, or what weapons it has been able to export from its other theater of operations in Syria.
Even as national security officials made clear their readiness to resupply and attack if ordered, however, White House officials also tried to convey that Obama’s orders were narrowly focused.
“We are not launching a sustained campaign against ISIL here,” said one. The overall administration message remained the same: The U.S. cannot bomb its way out of the Iraq crisis. Only Baghdad can end the dilemma by forming an inclusive government, officials insisted, one that will enfranchise Iraq’s Sunnis and other minorities and entice them to turn away from extremist forces like ISIL.
“An enduring solution to the persistent threat posed by ISIL will require further reconciliation among Iraqi communities and strengthened Iraqi security forces,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
But the White House also acknowledged that even if Baghdad overcame its political dysfunction, its military would still face a daunting task in trying to retake the territory ISIL has claimed — something the Pentagon believes it could not do without American military help.
“Nobody believes this is something you can just turn around overnight,” said one senior administration official.
Obama’s critics in Congress were not mollified by the president’s decisions. Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, two outspoken Republican hawks, slammed what they called the president’s policy of “half measures.”
“We need a strategic approach, not just a humanitarian one,” they said. “A policy of containment will not work against ISIS. It is inherently expansionist and must be stopped. The longer we wait to act, the worse this threat will become, as recent events clearly show.”
McCain and Graham joined other conservative critics who charged that Obama’s policy of disengagement in the Middle East has caused the crises in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to get steadily worse as they fester without strong American action.
“If ever there were a time to reevaluate our disastrous policy in the Middle East, this is it,” they said. “Because of the President’s hands-off approach, the threats in the region have grown and now directly threaten the United States. We are already paying a very heavy price for our inaction, and if we do not change course, the costs of our inaction will only grow.”