WITH A potentially momentous eight-minute address last night from the State Dining Room of the White House, President Obama drew a figurative line in the Iraqi sand with a double-edged American sword, daring the latest terrorist danger to cross that line.
With a humanitarian instinct wrapped in the high-tech mailed glove of power, the president outlined a strategy that may usher in a new limited use of American military force in Iraq, the country we just can’t get away from. The question unanswered — the question no one’s even addressed — is just how “limited” limited can be when that terrorist threat has proven it’s no respecter of lines, or boundaries, of any kind.
The president ordered U.S. fighters to make “targeted” strikes against the forces of ISIL (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) if they advanced toward the city of Erbil, home to 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds and hundreds of American diplomats moved recently from the embassy in Baghdad. He also announced that C-17 and C-130 cargo planes, accompanied by two F/A-18 fighters, had completed a humanitarian mission, delivering 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals to perhaps as many as 40,000 Yezidis, Iraqi ethnic minorities hiding from ISIL forces in the Sinjar mountains.
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TO STOP the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city,” he said late Thursday. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad. We’re also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL.
“Second, at the request of the Iraqi government, we’ve begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain. ...
“In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives. And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs. They’re without food, they’re without water. People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide. So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: Descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.
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“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world, Obama said. “So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. 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. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”
The president offered what amounts to a two-pronged attack against ISIL, each representing one side of America’s geopolitical character: the soft power of goodwill, good works and the advance of storied American values; and, if necessary, the hard power of unrivaled military might, and its sometimes accidentally indiscriminate application.
Obama went to great lengths to put distance between this mission and the war in Iraq that formally ended in December 2011, rhetorically dismissing any possibility of history repeating.
“As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said. “And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”
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BUT IMPORTANTLY, officials told The Associated Press that the United States would be ready to provide more such humanitarian airdrops if necessary. And of course they will be necessary.
A seemingly simple act of humanitarian largesse thus runs the risk of becoming dangerously complicated in the days and weeks to come, because of the second edge of the mission — the military one. Imagine the Berlin airlift conducted with Soviet tanks ready to fire on U.S. supply planes without provocation.
Last night the president said the actions just taken and announced are part of “a broader strategy that will empower Iraqis to confront this crisis,” militarily. That was an echo of what he said in June, before the impact and threat of ISIS became more widely recognized. It was then that Obama said the United States reserved the right to execute “targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
The targeted and precise hypothetical that the president advanced two months ago is now real, or likely to be so, and responding to that sudden or emerging reality raises operational questions that may not be easily answered.
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The first matter is assessing what “the situation on the ground” really is now and will be in the weeks to come. With no combat footprint in Iraq, getting credible, actionable intelligence will necessarily be a challenge, one that the Iraqi military and even the game Kurdish troops aren’t up to helping with yet.
The second matter is containing a situation on the ground that’s been out of our control (or anyone else’s) from the beginning. ISIL has spread like a virus across Syria and Iraq. As of Thursday, elements of the terrorist group are said to be about 40 miles from Erbil and moving characteristically fast.
It’s this dual, fluid ISIL threat — to Americans hunkering down in Erbil and to Yezidis doing the same in the Sinjar mountains — that complicates hopes of a surgical American response to either situation.
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THE ACTION in the short-term — feeding the Yezidis — is easily accomplished, at least so far. Reports indicate that Thursday’s first airdrop was successful. But this can’t be a one-off operation. What happens when some ISIL hotshot with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile takes a crack at one of the cargo planes — aircraft forced to fly “low and slow” in order to make airdrops?
Assuming that airstrikes on ISIL forces give the 40,000 Yezidis a way out of the mountains, where would they go? They can’t return to their homes, now occupied by ISIS fighters. Where would they go? Ironically, given the current situation, their concentration in the Sinjar mountains has its benefits; that single location makes a humanitarian mission much more logistically doable.
Once they leave those mountains, once they disperse, their whereabouts would be almost impossible to confirm. To say nothing of their fates among the ISIS fighters sworn to destroy them. These and other complications, the things nobody wargames for, are what’s got various analysts and journalists concerned.
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On MSNBC on Thursday night, Raed Jarrar of the American Friends Service Committee asked: “Once we start bombing and interfering in Iraq, where is the line we draw in the sand? How many airstrikes are we gonna accept, how many bombs are we gonna drop?”
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” said Kevin Sutcliffe of VICE News, also appearing on MSNBC. “This is a small, organized, determined force. There’s only 7,000 to 10,000 fighters. Look how fast they’ve spread across Syria and Iraq ... how do you stop that?”
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told NBC affiliate KING-TV that “you cannot protect refugees with high-performance attack aircraft ... so I think it’s a political gesture — possibly not a wise one.” McCaffrey, who said arming Kurdish forces makes the most sense, isn’t optimistic about the U.S. plan, saying flat out: “This is not decisive use of U.S. military power.”
And the two reliables in the naysayers’ corner — Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — damned with faint praise. In a joint Thursday statement, the two stalwart Republican hawks said the president’s plans don’t go far enough.
“The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade” the militant army, their statement said. “This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners who are fighting [ISIL].”
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LAST NIGHT the president stood foursquare on American principles. “[W]hen the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action,” he said. “That’s my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief. And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That’s a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.”
But we’re also a nation of people bone-tired of war, a country led in part by an internally combative Congress that views even foreign events through a ruinously partisan, zero-sum game lens. We’re good on the first-blush reaction to atrocities; follow-through is often another matter entirely. So, two questions come to mind in the wake of the United States’ latest incursion into Iraq, and they need to be answered, or at least examined, sooner rather than later:
How far will our fractious domestic politics let the president take the United States into this hopefully limited exercise? And with no American combat forces in the country, how far can we successfully go to prevent catastrophe in Iraq — in Erbil, on the Sinjar mountains or anywhere else?
Image credits: Obama: Pool photo.Obama and national security team in Situation Room: The White House/Pete Souza. ISIL fighters: via The Independent (UK).