In authorizing air strikes against targets in northern Iraq, President Obama pointed to savage behavior by the so-called Islamic State. Its fighters have dispossessed and threatened to kill innocent Iraqis they regard as infidels.
But Mr. Obama shouldn’t allow what he described as an emergency intervention for humanitarian purposes to mutate into a major military campaign.
In recent weeks, the Islamic State — an offshoot of al-Qaeda that is also active in Syria — has terrorized Christians in Iraq’s second-largest city, threatened the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and driven thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority into a mountainous area where they faced starvation.
Late last week, President Obama announced that U.S. aircraft were dropping food and water for refugees, and that he had authorized air strikes to “break the siege of Mt. Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there.” He suggested that military action could continue for a while, saying: “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks.”
The President identified two compelling reasons for taking action in a country from which the United States withdrew troops in 2011, after eight years and almost 4,500 U.S. military fatalities. He cited an American duty to intervene “when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre.” His other justification was the need to protect U.S. civilians and military advisers in Iraq.
Mr. Obama insisted the operation was limited, and promised he wouldn’t let the United States “be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.” Instead, Washington would continue to press for a broad-based government in Baghdad, and work with Iraq and its neighbors “to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counter-terrorism challenge.”
The President surely was moved by the suffering the Islamic State has inflicted on its victims. But the air strikes can also be interpreted as an attempt to shore up the government of Iraq against an insurgency that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has helped to foment by excluding Sunnis from the political process.
The President’s other rationale for the air strikes — to protect Americans — also would justify military action to protect U.S. personnel from an attack on Baghdad. Will the United States be able to say no if the Islamic State continues to advance and Mr. Maliki or a successor asks for more strikes or military advisers? What if the measures were unavailing?
Mr. Obama announced in June that he was considering “all options” to help the government in Baghdad fend off the Islamic State insurgency. We argued then against a U.S. air campaign. Distressing and tragic as recent events in Iraq may be, that’s still our advice.
— Los Angeles Times