To many, President Barack Obama’s authorization of airstrikes in Iraq ― and their commencement a few hours ago ― appears to be a major shift in U.S. posture. Certainly, this is the hope of millions of Kurds, tens of thousands of Yezidis, and countless other Iraqis desperate to stave off further gains by the radical fighters of the Islamic State in the Levant. Undoubtedly, it was a tough decision for the president, who has long been reluctant to use force in the Middle East and has prided himself on having “ended” the war in Iraq.
But is the shift as consequential as it seems? Obama’s rhetoric on Thursday suggests we should be cautious in over-interpreting the turn of events, and very concerned about the sustainability of American engagement.
Strangely, Obama rationalized the use of limited force almost entirely on humanitarian grounds. He was correct in portraying the scene on Sinjar mountain ― where as many as 40,000 Yezidi Iraqis face dehydration, starvation and possible mass slaughter ― as a humanitarian crisis. And he is right in calling attention to the fact that ISIS’s drive to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria could result in genocide against the Yezidis, whose global population is less than one million. As the president powerfully stated: “When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then … the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
My concern is not the humanitarian justification for the airstrikes. It is the lack of accompanying strategic arguments for the use of force, which are equally strong. ISIL and its advance are not only a problem for Kurds, Yezidis and other Iraqis, but for the region and U.S. interests there. The declaration of an Islamic caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria, having control of considerable wealth and weapons, and accompanied by veiled threats to the U.S. and its allies, is not a sideshow; the potential flows of jihadists with European passports back to the West alone is a serious, looming problem.
Moreover, the possible fall of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to Islamic militants would risk the lives and livelihoods of millions of pro-American Kurds and could devastate one of the few places in the Middle East where real gains in prosperity and political freedom have been made in the past decade. Equally unsettling is the intense pressure being placed on Jordan; the conflict in Gaza is stoking the resentment among those living in Jordan, half of whom are Palestinians, while thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flow into the kingdom each day, adding to the more than 650,000 who are already there. Should the government of Jordan collapse under the strain, or should ISIS make inroads into the country, Israel could face new challenges which would make the fighting in Gaza look like a warm-up.
Perhaps Obama and his team decided to focus almost exclusively on the humanitarian rationale for military action in Iraq because it was the crisis on Sinjar mountain which finally ended the months-long debate in Washington about whether U.S. military force was warranted in Iraq. Or perhaps there was a political assessment that Americans ― understandably reluctant to see any military action in Iraq ― would tolerate the use of force to prevent genocide but would be indifferent or immune to the persuasive strategic case for action against ISIS.
Whatever the reasoning, relying solely on humanitarian arguments to justify American action could create problems for the Obama administration down the road. While the trapped Yezidis must be rescued, this is not the only objective that limited U.S. military force can and should achieve. In fact, if initial reports are accurate, the first airstrikes were not against ISIS at Sinjar mountain, which is near Syria, but against targets near Erbil, far to the east, nearer the Iranian border. Such strikes are welcome ― Kurdish forces have fought alongside the U.S. in more than one war ― but the rationale is more strategic than humanitarian. While Americans are unlikely to protest this distinction today, the White House may open itself up to criticism of overstepping its self-defined mandate if it continues to use limited airpower for strategic gains after the immediate humanitarian crisis is resolved.
Consider some parallels with what happened in Libya two years ago. The U.S. and its allies justified United Nations-sanctioned military intervention solely on humanitarian grounds, but went on to use force to help one side of a civil war prevail over the other. This infuriated Russia, which in part led to the subsequent inability of the U.N. to take any meaningful action in Syria, given Putin’s vow not to be hoodwinked by the West yet again. No, the U.S. doesn’t need a U.N. Security Council resolution for action in Iraq, as it is undertaking airstrikes at the behest of the Iraqi government. But overstepping the stated goal may well backfire again ― by engendering the resentment of the American people, who may feel that the full case for even limited force was never presented to them. The manner in which Obama made the case for action now may severely limit his options for doing what may be needed in the future.
For now, as been noted in Iraq many times, “there cannot be a tomorrow if there is no today.” Obama and his team have risen to an acute need on the ground, and to a defense of American values and interests. One must hope that it is not too late, not only to save the Yezidis, but to reverse the march of ISIS and influence Iraq’s political leaders to do better if they get a second chance to rebuild their country.
By Meghan L. O’Sullivan
Meghan O’Sullivan is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She served on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, and was a deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. ― Ed.