President Barack Obama is taking another step down the slippery slope to war in Iraq, but he was justified to order airstrikes starting Friday to protect 40,000 civilians from a potential genocide.
U.S. fighters dropped laser-guided, 500-pound bombs on artillery, vehicles and mortars of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That marked a milestone – the first U.S. military action inside Iraq since troops left in December 2011 after eight years of fighting and nearly 4,500 Americans killed in action.
In a nationally televised speech Thursday night, the president laid out a limited mission. Protect American personnel in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, from the onslaught of ISIS, the brutal Sunni militant group that has rampaged through a broad swath of Iraq and eastern Syria. Safeguard the Yazidi, followers of a small religious sect whom ISIS fighters have chased out of their homes and have threatened to kill unless they give up their religion. And provide humanitarian aid to the 40,000 people trapped on a mountain, where before the bombs started dropping, U.S. cargo planes dropped desperately needed food and water.
“These innocent families are faced with a horrible choice – descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger,” Obama said, rightly asserting that the United States “cannot turn a blind eye” to a possible massacre.
His commitment could lead to airstrikes for weeks. Yet as he has said since sending military advisers to Iraq in June, he insisted he “will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq.”
He must do everything he possibly can to keep that promise, but in the Middle East, the best-laid plans often get wiped out by chaos and violence on the ground.
Even if this mission is a success, the danger posed by ISIS won’t end. The more direct threat to America is that ISIS is recruiting fighters in the West, who could return to launch terrorist attacks.
It’s not only the usual hawks sounding those warnings. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said Friday that the U.S. “simply cannot allow” ISIS-trained terrorists to “attack us in our backyard.” The U.S. must confront ISIS now, she said in her statement, “or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger enemy in the future.”
Giving the go-ahead for airstrikes may turn out to be the easy part for Obama. To protect the American people, he will almost certainly face more difficult decisions ahead.