Iraq strikes: Americans will be confused by latest turn

 

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First strikes against the advancing jihadists in northern Iraq by the US got under way today just as Barack Obama had said they would a few hours before. That, however, may be about the only straight line you will find in the President’s stance on intervening in conflicts overseas and especially towards Iraq. And it was a pretty brief one.

It has been creeping up on him since January when Fallujah became the first major Iraqi city to fall to Isis fighters. Early this summer the rout accelerated and it seemed Iraq might fall apart. The US had the power to help but that would mean not just a wobble on the part of Mr Obama but a total reversal from the “dumb war” platform he ran on to become President in the first place.

So far, the response from Congress has been largely supportive to the US action now under way. But Mr Obama’s reluctance to act could not be clearer. His removal of US troops from Iraq in 2011, eight years after his predecessor’s invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, was meant to be at the heart of his legacy as a two-term President. America at last will have grasped the folly of its overseas expeditions, in the Middle East in particular. 

And the President knows well that Americans, in so much as they are paying attention at all, will be anxious and confused about this latest turn. They will wonder why just a few weeks ago he said that US military support for Iraq would come only when a new inclusive government was formed in Baghdad. That though has not happened.

And of course they will wonder where this might end. Is this as limited an operation as the White House is saying or are they again on a slippery slope?  “This is focused on the protection of our personnel and facilities, in addition to the humanitarian mission associated with the Yazidis,” a senior aide insisted in a conference call with reporters.  Mr Obama himself declared that he will not “allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq”.

While there is nothing tidy in America’s response to this or all the other foreign policy crises of the last weeks and months, whether in Gaza, Ukraine or Syria, the White House would argue there is in fact consistency at play.  Protecting US personnel  is an easy call for any US president. And, in truth, the other thing that connects the military synapses in Mr Obama’s brain seems to be this: an imminent threat of a slaughter of large numbers of innocents.

 

True, he did not strike the Syrian regime when it used chemical weapons against its own people, but he very nearly did. He joined other allies in driving out Muammar Gaddafi from Libya after he threatened to ferret out rebels from wardrobes in their homes and kill them. On Thursday he said the world couldn’t countenance the possible slaughter of the roughly 40,000 Yazidis trapped in the mountains.  He even reached for that word “genocide”.

The theme was taken up by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, yesterday just as the first US bombs were flying. “The stakes for Iraq’s future can also not be clearer,” he said. The Isis “campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Christian minority, and its grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide”.

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