WASHINGTON — The U.S. commander in chief is on a two-week vacation in Martha's Vineyard, where he was spotted playing golf over the weekend. In Washington, before the presidential chopper took him there, President Barack Obama quipped that it'd be a little while before he'd be wearing suits again and indicated that the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq could go on for somewhat longer than that.
Three years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, American bombers are again flying missions. It represents the return to a war zone in which the U.S. military fought — tenaciously and at great cost to life — from 2003 to 2011. One of the reasons Obama was elected was that he promised to end the war. And now he has ordered air attacks. But it isn't just his vacationing as planned that demonstrates how he's underplaying the significance of this latest U.S. intervention. He has also laid out very minimalist goals for the intervention.
Assuring Congress that the scale and duration of the intervention were to be "limited," Obama said the main priorities were protecting U.S. citizens in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil as well as thousands of Yazidi people who had fled to the mountains to escape from ISIS terrorists.
An intervention with limited firepower makes sense in the context of Obama's foreign policy — military force as a last resort. In Libya, Obama only stepped in when dictator Muammar Gaddafi's troops were about to annihilate the rebels in Benghazi. In Syria, he considered the possibility of rocket attacks only after the regime of President Bashar al-Assad gassed its own people.
In Iraq too, it has required a dramatic series of events to mobilize Obama. For months the president has been monitoring how the the Islamist terrorists have been capturing one Iraqi city after another. But only in the past few weeks has the crisis reached such intense proportions that Obama was forced to act.
In Erbil, most inhabitants are Kurds, which is to say faithful U.S. allies, and there is also a U.S. consulate. And while ISIS rebels were sweeping wide swathes of land clear, they were threatening the fleeing Yazidis with genocide. If Obama had let that happen, he probably never would have forgiven himself.
But the president is not beyond reproach. Republican Sen. John McCain accuses Obama of waiting too long and doing too little against "the most powerful terror organization in history" that poses not just a threat to Iraq but also to the United States. Opponents of any new engagements in the Middle East, Obama's political friends among them, fear on the other hand that the United States will once again become disastrously entangled.
Reading the tea leaves
What strategy Obama is following — if indeed he is following one — is unclear to friend and foe alike. Contradictions abound. At the outset, the president's advisers described the military intervention as a reaction to a "one-time" danger. On Saturday Obama said that the problem couldn't be solved in a couple of weeks and there was no time plan. So it could conceivably go on for months, even years.
Obama's priority explanation for the intervention is that protecting U.S. citizens in Iraq, as well as the consulates in Erbil and the embassy in Baghdad, is his "duty." This justifiable reasoning is doubtlessly aimed primarily at the American public, who are not overly interested in Kurds or Yazidis. But what is the logical follow-up to that? That Obama is giving up on the rest of Iraq with the exception of Erbil and Baghdad? What price is he willing to pay to keep his diplomatic bases? What happens if ISIS terrorists aren't stopped by the air attacks, or if they turn off Baghdad's water supply?
All of these questions lead to a larger one: Just how far is Obama willing to go against the ISIS terror group, which now occupies parts of Iraq and Syria and wants to create a "caliphate," a kind of religious state? According to The Washington Post, Obama doesn't have a "credible plan" to deal with this threat. The think tank Center for a New American Security supports a broadly conceived commitment that would vanquish the IS extremists.
Obama asserts that his is a holistic approach and that the Iraqis themselves are responsible for the country's setbacks. From his point of view, Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has excluded and discouraged other groups such as the Sunnis and the Kurds. According to the U.S. president, that's why he didn't send in planes earlier. That would only have taken the pressure off Maliki, Obama told The New York Times, and would have encouraged Maliki and other Shia to think, "We don’t actually have to make compromises. … All we have to do is let the Americans bail us out again."
So Obama declared Saturday that the most important agenda was forming a new Iraqi government. To his mind, this is feasible without Maliki and would reconcile the three major groups. A unity government would then lay the foundations for the Iraqi military to solve the ISIS problem itself — with U.S. help. Obama said the U.S. didn't want to play the role of air force to the Kurds or to the Iraqis in general. He was a partner of the Iraqis, he said, but wouldn't do their work for them.
This argument is conclusive in the sense that Obama is selling military aid for the price of political progress. But something else results from it as well: If the Iraqis continue to prove unable to find common ground, ISIS terrorists will rule a considerable part of the country.
In his New York Times interview, Obama also mentioned a lesson derived from the Libyan war. After the military engagement, too little was done to rebuild the society there, and the price for that is being paid now. "So that's a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, 'Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?'"
There doesn’t appear to be one for Iraq.