Shortly before seven on Friday morning, US aircraft dropped two 500-pound bombs on artillery controlled by Islamic militants in northern Iraq. Barack Obama, as The New York Times noted, is now the fourth US president in a row to launch military action in that country.
Like his predecessors, Obama wrapped the military option in humanitarian packaging. He said on Thursday that the “limited” action he authorized was intended to protect American facilities and personnel in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region, and to prevent “a potential act of genocide.” Kurdish forces retreated suddenly on Thursday from advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and thousands of civilians belonging to minority ethnic groups are besieged on a barren mountaintop. Militants have also taken control of Iraq’s largest dam, a rickety structure on the Tigris River that could send catastrophic floodwaters through the city of Mosul and surrounding areas if it is breached.
“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these,” Obama said. “I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”
Hawks are already angling to do exactly that. “These actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS poses,” Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement following the president’s announcement that he’d authorized the strikes, along with airdrops of food and water to the civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar. As they have previously, McCain and Graham called for wider strikes against ISIS not only in Iraq but also in Syria.
Conservative commentators are salivating, too. Here’s The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, quoting John Bolton: “‘The problem is not just Iraq, but the entire Middle East’…why not act in Syria? Why not commit to eradicating the Islamic State, which threatens the United States and our allies? Why set a date certain to pull all troops out of Afghanistan, repeating [Obama’s] Iraq error?”
At this point it would be surprising if McCain et al. did not call for escalating a conflict in the Middle East. Still, the quick opportunism of the hawks illustrates the danger of assuming that military action will serve humanitarian ends or that the word “limited” really means anything. By declaring that “we have a mandate to help” in Iraq as well as “the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre,” the president opened a door for the armchair warriors, while putting only vague boundaries around the mission. That the administration is using the word “genocide” is particularly significant, as it carries implications under international law.