Obama intervenes in Iraq: lessons learned from Benghazi and Rwanda (+video)

Benghazi and Rwanda, two crises where military intervention was not used, likely figured in the backdrop of Obama's decision on what to do about a looming genocide and an imminent threat to US personnel in Iraq.

By , Staff writer

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    Kurdish peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants on the front line in Khazer August 8, 2014. US warplanes bombed Islamist fighters marching on Iraq's Kurdish capital on Friday after President Obama said Washington must act to prevent 'genocide.'
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No one has ever accused President Obama of being overanxious to use military force.

But as Mr. Obama considered and ultimately authorized US military action Thursday to address the mounting humanitarian and security threats posed by Islamist militants in northern Iraq, two earlier crises where military intervention was not used likely figured in the backdrop of White House discussions on what to do about a looming genocide and an imminent threat to US personnel in Iraq.  

One was the attack on US diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, and the other was the Rwanda genocide in 1994.

Recommended: How much do you know about US-Iraq relations? Take our quiz.

Four American personnel were killed in the Benghazi attacks – including US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, the first American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979. The Benghazi attacks led to heated debates in Washington over whether Obama should have responded to the attacks with military intervention – and to charges from some Republicans that the president’s reluctance to use force was a factor in the loss of American lives.   

In announcing his authorization of air strikes in a televised statement Thursday night, Obama said he was acting to protect American personnel in Erbil, the Kurdish capital in northern Iraq threatened by advancing forces of the self-declared Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The US has a consulate in Erbil and military teams advising the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga on their fight with IS.

Administration officials are also relying heavily on the argument of the presidential duty to protect Americans, especially personnel of the US government, in justifying the airstrikes Obama authorized. The Pentagon announced Friday morning that US air strikes had commenced, in particular against mobile artillery batteries that IS is positioning ever closer to Erbil.

“The protection of US personnel and facilities is among [the president’s] highest responsibilities as commander-in-chief, and given the threats that we see on the periphery of Erbil, he has authorized the use of targeted military action,” says a senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss Obama’s decisions.

Obama had already “made clear” in June, when he announced he was sending teams of military advisers to Iraq to work with Iraqi security forces on addressing the advancing ISIS threat, that protecting US personnel would be a top priority, the official says. “If we see actions anywhere in Iraq that threaten our personnel or facilities,” the official adds, “we stand prepared to take targeted action to protect them.”

The second action Obama authorized was air drops of food and water to thousands – estimates range as high as 40,000 or more – of ethnic minority Yazidis who have fled IS to take precarious refuge on a mountaintop outside Sinjar, Iraq. The Yazidis, an ancient Kurdish people who never converted to Islam, are considered by the Sunni militants to be infidels who deserve extermination.

Hundreds have reportedly been slaughtered, Yazidi women were kidnapped to become slaves to IS fighters, and the spotty reports from the mountain refuge claimed hundreds more Yazidi deaths, particularly among children, from thirst, starvation, and exposure.

Lingering in the background, as Obama discussed the humanitarian crisis with his national security team this week, was the Rwanda genocide that occurred under another US president’s watch. In 1998 and while he was still president, Bill Clinton apologized while on a visit to Rwanda “for not having acted to stop the genocide.”

Since then, President Clinton has repeatedly cited his inaction on Rwanda as one of his “biggest regrets,” claiming that US-led action by the international community could have saved 300,000 lives.

In his televised statement, Obama said that thousands of innocent Iraqis were facing “certain death,” and as a result, “America is coming to help.” Citing “a situation like [the one] on that mountain,” Obama said the US would act “carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

Obama said the humanitarian action did not constitute a US return to the Iraq war, but he suggested the US has a moral responsibility to intervene given the circumstances. “With innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help … and when we have the unique capabilities to avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said.     

Obama’s actions have so far run into little opposition and have been deemed justifiable by many foreign policy analysts – especially when they are explained, as they have been by the White House, as necessary actions to protect US personnel and to prevent a potential genocide.

“This is a potential humanitarian catastrophe, and if we can prevent or mitigate it within a manageable level of risk – which I think we can – then we ought to do it,” says Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University in Durham, NC.

Professor Dunlap, a former deputy judge advocate general of the US Air Force, says that while air strikes “may not alter the strategic situation in Iraq … there is much to be said for saving what lives we can today as we continue to work the larger issues. We don’t to be witnesses to genocide.”

The air strikes Obama authorized are also “within the president’s constitutional authority as commander-in-chief,” Dunlap says – and especially to the extent they are “intended to protect American lives and American aircraft.” The transport planes carrying out the humanitarian air drops are accompanied by fighter jets authorized to intervene in the case of attack.

If anything, some critics say the actions taken by Obama are fine as far as they go, but still suggest a president dangerously reluctant to face the IS threat head on and to take the broader steps that defeating IS would require.

“The president’s authorization of airstrikes is appropriate, but like many Americans, I am dismayed by the ongoing absence of a strategy for countering the grave threat ISIS poses to the region,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement Friday. “Vital national interests are at stake,” he added, “yet the White House has remained disengaged despite warnings from Iraqi leaders, Congress, and even members of its own administration.”

White House officials say the president does indeed have a “long-term strategy,” but they say it is rooted in a conviction that it will be the Iraqis themselves, through a unified and inclusive government, backed by capable Iraqi security forces, that will defeat the IS threat.

“We are not launching a sustained US campaign against” IS, a senior administration official says, “because our belief is the best way to deal with the threat … over the long term is for the Iraqis to do so. But that does not mean,” the official adds, “that we’re not going to support them in that effort through additional assistance, training, equipping, intelligence, advice.” 

That “strategy” won’t satisfy those who want a more assertive stance from a reluctant-interventionist president, but Obama’s approach does finds support in some circles.

The US should act to slow IS’s advance in Iraq, and “limited airstrikes, supported by solid intelligence, can play an important role in this effort and can help protect civilians,” says Vikram Singh, vice-president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

But “within Iraq,” he adds, “this crisis remains a political challenge that can only be resolved by a more inclusive Iraqi government.”

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