Last week, when Obama first announced that he had ordered military action against the Islamists, his language was all about limits. These were "targeted airstrikes," he said, with carefully limited goals: protecting American personnel in Kurdistan and rescuing terrified displaced Iraqis on Mt. Sinjar.
But it didn't take long for the mission to grow. By the weekend, Obama was already talking about "a broader strategy in Iraq," one that would help a new, improved government in Baghdad repel the fighters of the Islamic State entirely.
"We will continue to provide military assistance and advice to the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces as they battle these terrorists, so that the terrorists cannot establish a permanent safe haven," he said, and added, "This is going to be a long-term project."
To the inattentive, that might have looked like a new speed record for "mission creep," the familiar tendency for
The Obama Doctrine, which has evolved through painful trial and error (see Libya and Syria), says the United States won't use military force except when vital U.S. interests are threatened. But the "vital interest" exceptions Obama has cited include international terrorism, other threats to U.S. citizens and genocide — and all three are present in Iraq.
Indeed, the stakes in this war are immeasurably larger than the safety of Americans in Kurdistan (they could have been evacuated) or even the lives of thousands of Iraqi Yazidis on a mountain (although, yes, they deserved rescue too).
The fighters of the Islamic State "make …
"This is not a group that can go halfway," Gen.
So, yes, Obama was right to act forcefully, even under his own doctrine of maximum restraint. But the Obama Doctrine isn't the same thing as an Obama strategy. Has the president charted clear goals in Iraq, and a clear path to reach them?
Not entirely. Obama has outlined some first steps: He's trying to force Iraq's feuding politicians to form a more inclusive government than the Sunni-hating autocracy of Prime Minister
Dempsey, with a military officer's precision, fills in the gaps: "We are preparing a strategy … [to] initially contain, eventually disrupt and finally defeat [Islamic State] over time," he said. (The general artfully borrowed his language from Obama's 2009 description of U.S. goals in the struggle against Al Qaeda, when the president said he wanted to "disrupt, defeat and dismantle" the terrorist group.)
At this point, Dempsey's clear goals are only a proposal; the strategy is still a work in progress. Major questions remain unanswered: Exactly what will be the role of U.S. military forces? What if Iraq's leaders don't succeed in forming a more inclusive and effective government? (The Islamic State will still be there, still a threat.) And what about Syria, where the Islamic State took root before expanding into Iraq?
Even without American boots on the ground, Obama has entered the United States in its fourth