In making the case for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, President Barack Obama is drawing on the doctrine involving the use of American force that he outlined less than three months ago, when it seemed he was trying to avoid potential U.S. military action anywhere.
In a late May speech at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama said he would use military force under two scenarios: a direct threat against Americans or U.S. interests, and a humanitarian crisis on a scale that he said would “stir the conscience.”
On Thursday night, when Obama announced that he had authorized airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops in Iraq, he argued that both conditions were being met.
“When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action,” Obama said. “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.”
Two days later, he suggested the U.S. engagement in Iraq will go on for some time.
“This is going to be a long-term project,” Obama said of achieving the political climate in Iraq that its leaders need to counter terrorist threats.
U.S. military jets have conducted several airstrikes on terrorist targets near Iraq’s Kurdish capital of Irbil, home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen American military trainers.
The military also has undertaken airdrops of food and water for Iraqis under siege from the Islamic State group, and Obama has authorized strikes if needed to protect the civilians. On Saturday, U.S. jet fighters and drones conducted four airstrikes on Islamic State forces that were firing on civilians taking shelter in the Sinjar mountains, officials said. A third airdrop of food followed the airstrikes.
The deteriorating situation appears to fall within the parameters for military action Obama outlined. Yet the shift from a theoretical argument about using force to actually doing just that will test the scope and application of Obama’s policy.
Already Obama is facing the question of why Iraq’s besieged religious minorities are worthy of U.S. military support, but not those in the civil war in Syria, where 170,000 people have died.
The same question could apply to the violence in the Central African Republic or the Congo.
Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said that even though he welcomed Obama’s decision in Iraq, it was inevitable that “those who have called for a similar humanitarian intervention in Syria will wonder why Iraq and why not Syria.”
Obama’s advisers say there are important differences between Iraq and Syria. Officials note that Obama is undertaking military action in Iraq at the invitation of that country’s government, while in Syria, U.S. intervention would aim to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Officials also say that the ties built between the U.S. and Iraq during nearly a decade of war have left the military with significant intelligence and surveillance resources that provide keen insight into the situation there. Such resources, officials say, do not exist in Syria.