The president is right to launch a humanitarian intervention to assist the Iraqis stranded at Mount Sinjar and airstrikes on ISIS targets. The potential destruction of the Yazidi population and others at the hands of brutal terrorists should stir the consciences of Iraqis and Americans alike, and the strategic threat that ISIS poses – not only to our Kurdish allies in the north but also to other parts of Iraq and ultimately to the United States – should stir further American action. But the actions undertaken thus far should be part of a broader campaign to roll back ISIS gains, one that includes arming and assisting Kurdish and moderate Sunni Arab forces in Iraq, carrying out additional airstrikes when appropriate, and working to build a more inclusive, post-Maliki Iraqi government.
Having decided to attack ISIS positions, the United States has now crossed a Rubicon. Previously, the administration hesitated to carry out such strikes, for fear of turning ISIS against the United States and associating America more visibly with a sectarian Iraqi government. In his remarks to the nation, the President attempted to split the difference – the attacks on ISIS, he indicated, are for humanitarian reasons and not counterterrorism purposes, and they are aimed at protecting Kurdish cities and our consulate in Irbil rather than at bolstering the Baghdad government in the face of its enemy.
Such distinctions are likely to be lost on most Iraqis, including those in ISIS. Attempting to draw largely arbitrary boundaries around American action in Iraq is likely to result in an approach that ignores the underlying drivers of this ongoing catastrophe. Having determined to save one stranded group and attack another, the president has now aligned the United States with Iraqi civilians and against ISIS. That is the right approach; now we need a strategy to succeed in the endeavor.