Here’s Why Obama’s Intervention in Iraq Makes Sense


Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama spoke on America’s next move in Iraq on Thursday, outlining the U.S. plans to intervene in the conflict wrought by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an extremist military organization. He also discussed the logic behind the intervention — why now and why this.

This is not a terrorism problem anymore,” said Jessica Lewis, of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, to Time back in June. “This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain.” So far, the situation has shown itself to be the worst of both worlds, terrorism and successful military aggression; ISIL has made progress on capturing both territory and weapons; and making efforts toward the goal of capturing Baghdad — where two ISIL car bombs killed fifty people on Wednesday evening. The United States’ intervention policy has so far been largely hands off but preparatory. President Obama spoke in June on increased intelligence efforts, diplomacy, and the relocation of assets to strategic positions, should action be required.

Yet he was always very clear that the U.S. would remain militarily uninvolved, apart from protecting those individuals and forces already in place in Iraq, and keeping an ear to the ground. “What’s clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action … the issue that I keep front and center — is what is in the national security interests of the United States of America,” said Obama in a June 19 remark. Now, Obama’s most recent action plans follow that intent carefully. His action is spurred by the need to protect Americans in Iraq. But he is also looking to serve a humanitarian purpose through aid packages and slightly less American-related airstrikes.  Erbil and safety of U.S. personnel

The city of Erbil, located in norther Iraq, houses much of the U.S.’s civilian and diplomatic personnel and is also where American military advisers aid Iraqi forces. Laser-guided bombs were dropped on ISIL military forces near Erbil on Friday in order to help maintain the safety of U.S. forces and to keep the incoming ISIL insurgency at bay. Erbil is important not only because of the presence of U.S. representation, but because it acts as the Kurdish capitol; in other words, it’s of strategic wartime value as well as an American outpost.

The day before the weapons were dropped on ISIL forces, Obama explained the decision. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.” The narrow regional focus of his airstrike allowances makes it so that the U.S. can give “urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces” in the battle against ISIL, while still remaining largely out of Iraq when it comes to the enormity and far reaching effects of the conflict that do not pertain to Americans. With one exception: the Yezidis population currently hiding in the Sinjar Mountains, about 300 kilometers to the West or Erbil.

The Yezidis, Genocide, and Humanitarian Choices

The Yezidis are one of the Kurdish speaking religious minorities presently being targeted by ISIL for genocide. Yezidis families in that region have seen intense violence from invading forces, with many of the women being enslaved while “mass executions” of both Christians and Yezidis have been reported. The International Business Times reports that there are about 500,000 Yezidis in Iraq, and only 700,000 globally.

The group’s beliefs are polytheistic, combining elements of ancient Islam with other influences such as “the peacock angel.” This Peacock Angel is in part what has led the group to be targeted. The deity also bears the name of Tawsi Melek and Shaytan, the latter being an Arabic word fot the devil, thus bringing on the wrath of religious extremists. Likely this only adds to the already problematic fact that Yezidis are polytheistic. Currently the Yezidis are trapped in the mountainous region without food or water, but unable to relocate because they are pinned in place by violent ISIL forces.

“I’ve said before the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now,” said Obama on Thursday. “When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.” Given the airstrikes already taking place, the humanitarian outweighs the political in this case as it rarely, but sometimes, does. Air dropped food and supplies have already taken place, and airstrikes have been authorized.

The international response to Obama’s decision also goes a long ways toward supporting its current logic. The U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has said, according to BBC, “I welcome president Obama’s decision to accept the Iraqi government’s request for help and to conduct targeted U.S. airstrikes, if necessary, to help Iraqi forces as they fight back against ISIL terrorist to free civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar.” The response is also in keeping with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon request that “those with the influence and resources” to aid the Yezidis do so, as he expressed his concern over the situation.

Republican critique

A great deal of the criticism that President Obama has faced regarding Iraq has been from individuals such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who insists Obama’s removal of American troops from Iraq was too rapid to prevent relapse into instability and militarism. There are members of the conservative right, such as Rand Paul, who are less in line with past GOP opinion. “What’s going on now I don’t blame on President Obama. Has he really got the solution? Maybe there is no solution. But I do blame the Iraq war on the chaos that is in the Middle East. I also blame those who are for the Iraq war for emboldening Iran,” said Paul, according to The LA Times. So while some on the right would likely take issue with Obama’s past decision to draw out troops, that doesn’t mean their view of how he should progress is so clear. Re-engagement is not on the table, this the president makes clear, but this latest activity is far more engaged than he’s been in the last few months.

In June, a CBS poll showed that while more Republicans believed the U.S. had responsibility to do something about violence in Iraq, it was still rather close, 52 percent to 43 percent. Considerably more Republicans believed Obama should do more in Iraq, at 53 percent, with only 13 percent of Democrats saying the same. So his careful and targeted actions going forward are likely to be considered either too gentle an intervention, or too arbitrary, with aid to Yezidis facing genocide hardly a long term or certain solution to any of the problems that have endangered the at risk population so far. Which is perhaps a fair concern. That said, the president’s current plan of action does a good job of balancing American interests and his promise to remain outside the conflict with humanitarian ethics and the need to act.

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