President Barack Obama campaigned on getting America out of Iraq and accelerated the withdrawal of forces.
Even as the situation in Iraq deteriorated in recent weeks, he resisted calls to take on the Islamic State directly.
That ended today, with the U.S. bombing of an artillery piece being used by militants near Erbil, the Kurdish capital where American diplomats and military personnel are stationed. The U.S. already had begun supplying food and water to thousands of Yezidis trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Obama has been reluctant to take military action or arm forces in Ukraine and Syria.
The paradox of him going back into Iraq, the country he staked his presidential ambitions on, obscures what supporters say is a consistency in his use of U.S. military force – to defend Americans and prevent genocide. He first fully articulated that vision in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009 and solidified it when a U.S.-led coalition intervened to stop Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 2011.
Harold Koh, who was the State Department’s top lawyer during the Libya campaign, said the Iraq mission is an example of Obama “applying the same broad set of principles to shifting facts.”
As Obama has faced decisions on the use of force over the course of his presidency, Koh said, he has gravitated to missions where “the nature of the operation is more pinpoint and has clear purpose, and the cause and effect is immediate.”
Call it Obama’s reverse Peace Prize campaign. He won the award nine months into his presidency; now he’s trying to live up to it.
Obama made clear yesterday that the potential destruction of an ethno-religious minority – with children dying of dehydration on a mountaintop and, according to a Yezidi member of Iraq’s parliament, women being sold into slavery – was a major part of his reason for using U.S. military force in Iraq again after refusing to do so in Syria and Ukraine.
Islamic State forces “have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide,” the president said in remarks at the White House last night.
He’s surrounded himself with a cast of humanitarian interventionists: Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, deputy national security advisers Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken, and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. Rhodes, Rice and Power were among the architects of Obama’s foreign policy during his 2008 campaign and have often lobbied him to use the military to stop brutality in other parts of the world.
Power has advocated humanitarian intervention under a concept known as “Responsibility to Protect,” which calls on nations to prevent a repetition of the horrors in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Power’s views on intervention were shaped by her experiences as a reporter covering the Balkan wars.
“The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace,” Obama said in accepting the Nobel Prize in 2009. “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds” and “all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”
His calibrations infuriate Republicans, and some Democrats, who want him to do more to combat international threats – and those who prefer to reduce America’s footprint on the globe. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, praised Obama for authorizing airstrikes, though he criticized the president for an “ongoing absence of a strategy” to counter the rise of the Islamic State.
For all of Obama’s talk of providing humanitarian aid – and defending Americans in Erbil – he’s done nothing to stop the Islamic State’s destabilization of Iraq, according to Boehner and other critics.
“Vital national interests are at stake, yet the White House has remained disengaged despite warnings from Iraqi leaders, Congress, and even members of its own administration. Such parochial thinking only emboldens the enemy and squanders the sacrifices Americans have made,” Boehner said.
“The president needs a long-term strategy - one that defines success as completing our mission, not keeping political promises - and he needs to build the public and congressional support to sustain it,” Boehner said.
Some Republicans have gone after Obama for his wariness to provide military aid to the government in Ukraine and to rebels in Syria battling President Bashar al-Assad. A sharp divide between Republicans who want to expand America’s engagement abroad and those who want to limit it, including potential 2016 presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul, has made it more difficult for the party to speak with a single voice against Obama’s foreign policy.
America’s NATO allies, including U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, are showing support for the dropping of bombs and provisions in Iraq. Like Obama’s aides, the British and French leaders – and their predecessors – have often prodded the U.S. president to deploy military assets in service of humanitarian intervention.
Even so, Obama administration officials have signaled they want Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gone. If he’s replaced by a coalition government that’s inclusive of Sunnis, that could help thwart Islamic State.
In the case of Syria, the threat – rather than the use – of U.S. military force persuaded President Bashar Al-Assad to give up chemical weapons capabilities. The U.S. has had a small, covert program to provide training and weapons to Syrian rebels considered moderate.
In Libya, the U.S. succeeded in stopping Qaddafi’s advance on Benghazi and assisting in a revolution.
Yet instability has plagued country ever since. Two years ago, four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed by radicals in attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. Late last month, the U.S. staff was withdrawn from the embassy in Tripoli because of the danger.
For limited strikes in Iraq, Obama’s on safe legal ground and unlikely to be challenged by a Congress that is currently out of session, Koh said.
“The real question is: What if it doesn’t do the job?” he said.