President Obama on Saturday laid out terms – but no timetable – for targeted airstrikes against Islamist militants sweeping across Iraq at a pace and level of military sophistication that took Baghdad and Washington by surprise.
US F-18 fighter jets and Predator drones on Friday launched three waves of airstrikes targeting artillery positions and fighters of the Islamic State (IS) near Erbil, the de facto Kurdish capital of northern Iraq. Meanwhile, US cargo planes on Saturday airdropped food and water to thousands of civilians trapped and perishing in the mountains near Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq.
Both actions were necessary, he said. US military and diplomatic personnel in Erbil weren’t going away and needed to be protected – read: no more unanswered Benghazi attacks – and there would be no genocides on his watch.
But for a reluctant commander-in-chief, who campaigned on a pledge to get out of Iraq and presided over the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011, both moves carried high risks. In statements Saturday, he spoke about the limits of US power, as much as he did the justification for its use in these cases.
Here are three takeaways from the president's weekly address and remarks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House today setting terms for US involvement.
No US boots on the ground in Iraq. It's a point that Obama has made throughout his presidency. "I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq," he said, in his weekly radio address.
Pressed on this point in his briefing with reporters, he added: Americans learned from their "long and costly incursion in Iraq" that their military could "keep a lid on problems wherever we are, if we put enough personnel and resources into it." But it can only last if there is a government that has a capacity to compromise and be inclusive. The reason the US isn't sending combat forces back to Iraq is that it won't work. "We can conduct airstrikes, but ultimately there's not going to be an American military solution to this problem," he told reporters.
Safe corridor for refugees. When the president first laid out the case for humanitarian assistance on Thursday, he spoke of the need to provide food, water, shelter for starving people and to avert "violence on a horrific scale." The aim was to protect civilians trapped on the mountain – mainly ethnic minority Yazidis threatened with slaughter by IS forces, if they did not convert to Islam – from genocide.
It was the prospect of imminent genocide that prompted the president to act. We can prevent IS forces from going up the mountain, he said. The next step is to get the refugees "safe passage down the mountain" and a path out of danger. Establishing a safe corridor is a more complicated venture than airdropping bottles of water. Can it be done without US troops on the ground? The question wasn't asked or answered.
No timetable. "I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks," Obama said. "This is going to be a long-term project." This project, as Obama describes it, isn't simply containing IS or even defeating it – an endgame scenario that some GOP senators have been urging on the president. A military solution will work without "some fundamental shift in attitudes among the various Iraqi factions," the president said. That means, for starters, a functioning government in Baghdad, where efforts to nominate a prime minister to replace Nouri al-Maliki this weekend have stalled. But it also means establishing a government that can be inclusive, reach political accommodations, and develop alliances in the region.
That's a dramatic mission statement, even for the US. In an interview Friday with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama makes a similar point about US politics – a challenge he has been unable to resolve in short order, either. "Our politics are dysfunctional," the president said. And the terrible divisions in the Middle East should be a "warning to us: societies don't work if political factions take maximalist positions. And the more diverse the country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions."
"Getting out of wars fast is nice if you can do it. Staying secure, however, is the real goal, and may take an indefinite period of time," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.