The announcement was delivered by e-mail. “At approximately 6:45 a.m. EDT, the U.S. military conducted a targeted airstrike against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorists,” the Defense Department press spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby wrote. The message was forwarded by the White House and the State Department to their respective press corps.
Barack Obama is now the fourth U.S. President to bomb Iraq. The first two air strikes were made by F-18s flying off the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush, which is currently sailing in the Persian Gulf. It was the carrier’s namesake who put Iraq on the American foreign-policy agenda in 1990, during Operation Desert Storm.
Obama’s reëngagement reflects a doctrine of limiting U.S. military intervention abroad and ending the “long seasons of war,” as he put it in a West Point on May 28th. But he is willing to use force to prevent genocide or humanitarian catastrophes. In the West Point speech, he said,
We have a real stake — abiding self-interest — in making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe.
This morning’s air strikes certainly address a humanitarian catastrophe. Some forty thousand Yazidis, a religious minority starving and stranded on a barren mountaintop, are surrounded by fanatics. Many of the Yazidis are women and children. The Islamic State, as the organization now calls itself, has swept across Iraq from bases in Syria, ruthlessly terrorizing religious minorities. It should be stopped, but airdrops of food and water will not solve the core problems.
Many of the potential pitfalls we now face in Iraq are the same ones that beset the Bush Presidencies and the Clinton Administration. Washington’s calculation is that air strikes will intimidate, contain, or push back an adversary, but the forces are not the hapless Iraqi Army. They are unlikely to melt away under pressure.
now holds about a third of Iraq. Last week, it solidified its control by taking seventeen additional towns and targets, including the strategic Mosul Dam. On Thursday, an online statement by pledged, “Our Islamic State forces are still fighting in all directions, and we will not step down until the project of the caliphate is established, with the will of God.” They are now the toughest group of fighters in the Middle East. They embrace martyrdom by the dozens in suicide bombings. Even the Iranians are afraid of them. A few five-hundred-pound bombs on their artillery positions are unlikely to have significant impact.
The past three Administrations have had to do far more than drop a few bombs. During Operation Desert Storm, which began in January, 1991, the first Bush Administration authorized thirty-eight days of continuous air attacks. To end the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the coalition dropped some two hundred and sixty-five thousand bombs. During Operation Desert Fox—the Clinton Administration’s four-day campaign, in December, 1998, to punish Saddam Hussein for refusing to permit U.N. weapons inspections—more than six hundred bombs and four hundred missiles struck Iraqi military targets. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched in March, 2003, the second Bush Administration supplemented its ground invasion by dropping almost thirty thousand bombs on military targets.
In his West Point speech, Obama said,
Some of America’s most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.
If five-hundred-pound bombs should prove insufficient to end the threat—to prevent genocide, to halt the advance on the Kurdish city of Erbil, or to protect American personnel in Iraq—then what would? In his hastily arranged address to the nation on Thursday night, Obama outlined the principles for his decision to intervene, but he was silent regarding long-term strategy, to say nothing of how the United States might end military operations. Devising exit strategies has bedevilled all four Administrations.
There is a broader danger. The direct American presence may galvanize more jihadis to the Islamic State. There was no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq until after the United States deployed troops in 2003, an act that fuelled Al Qaeda’s local appeal, on territorial, political, and religious grounds. In Iraq and Syria, is now estimated to have between ten thousand and twenty thousand fighters, including a couple of thousand with Western passports and a hundred or so from the United States.
As the United States confronts , the dangers that Americans will be targeted at home grow. Last month, the F.B.I.’s director, James B. Comey, said that the domestic threat emanating from “keeps me up at night,” that was a potential “launching ground” for attacks of the kind that occurred on September 11, 2001. The Attorney General, Eric H. Holder, Jr., told ABC News that , particularly its American jihadis, “gives us really extreme, extreme concern. . . . In some ways, it’s more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as Attorney General.”
Finally, at home, Obama’s decision is deepening political debate over a core foreign-policy issue in the twenty-first century: when and how to use the American military. In a joint statement after Obama’s television address Thursday night, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham dismissed the President’s “half measures” and called for far more aggressive intervention:
The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS. This should include the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian partners who are fighting ISIS. It should include U.S. air strikes against ISIS leaders, forces, and positions both in Iraq and Syria. It should include support to Sunni Iraqis who seek to resist ISIS. And none of this should be contingent on the formation of a new government in Baghdad.
The disputes in Congress, especially in an election year, are only likely to intensify. Those who have long advocated for arming Syrian rebels or for air strikes against Syrian military targets are proclaiming that the current calamity could have been avoided if the Obama Administration had acted earlier. (The situation in Syria is a far worse humanitarian disaster than Iraq, and controls large chunks of Syria, too.)
At a time when the United States desperately requires unity of purpose, we are more likely to get self-serving sound bites. Meanwhile, the old questions persist: what to do about Iraq, and how to do it right this time.