President Obama’s decision to authorize airstrikes against ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) forces in Iraq marks a lethal return to a conflict that has consumed nearly 4,400 U.S. lives and nearly a trillion dollars over the last 12 years. For a president committed to ending U.S. involvement in Iraq from his first days running for the White House, it must have been an anguished decision.
But the unanticipated crush of world events inevitably force hard presidential decisions. ISIL’s unexpected threat to the Kurdish capital of Irbil sent shudders into U.S. national security analysts. But the looming humanitarian disaster of tens of thousands of Kurds stranded on a mountaintop in northern Iraq facing death by starvation or ISIL assault ultimately drove the president to act. Obama authorized humanitarian airdrops of relief aid to these refugees and limited airstrikes to protect both the drops and U.S. facilities and personnel on the ground. This mission is likely to continue indefinitely as the conflict deepens.
While the current U.S. mission is limited and eminently justifiable on humanitarian grounds, its risks are immense. It opens the door widely to a growing American role in a regional sectarian conflict pitting the militarily potent Sunni ISIL against their Kurdish rivals in northern Iraq and Shia adversaries who control the Baghdad government and the south. And the deployment of several hundred U.S. advisors by Obama in June and July increases still further the likelihood that U.S. forces will become ever more deeply embroiled in this nascent civil war. Air strikes to protect those U.S. personnel could quickly evolve into wide-ranging strikes against ISIL wherever they are engaged with Iraqi or Kurdish forces, as American advisors inevitably take on bigger roles closer to the fighting.
The United States has fought one bloody and inconclusive war in Iraq in the last decade. The latest decision to re-authorize combat missions after a 2½ year pause brings the United States ever closer to the edge of another. While the United States has vital interests to protect in Iraq – protecting the flow of oil in the region, preventing further terror attacks on the U.S. homeland, avoiding a widening regional conflagration – active U.S. military action there should be minimized. Keeping U.S. involvement tightly limited and strictly focused on humanitarian aid is a far better choice than slowly creeping back into combat in the middle of a raging sectarian conflict. That would be a recipe for another U.S.-Iraq war that promises no good end for the United States or any of the parties in the region.