The evening of August 7, President Barack Obama did something that he could never have imagined doing in the second year of his second term: authorizing U.S. military combat action in Iraq. Elected in no small part to end President George W. Bush's "dumb war" in Iraq, Obama took pride in having removed all American troops from that country two and a half years ago, at the end of 2011. His announcement that he was authorizing humanitarian aid drops and air strikes in Iraq was deeply ambivalent, absolutely necessary, and an entirely predictable result of poor choices made late in his first term – choices not to retain a residual force of combat advisers in Iraq and not to train and equip the rebels fighting against President Bashar al Assad in Syria in the summer of 2012. As a result of those decisions to forfeit American influence in Syria and Iraq, the worst actors in both countries rose to power, creating a powerful radical Islamist state that poses a clear and present danger to America's friends in Baghdad, Erbil and throughout the Middle East.
In his announcement, the president promised that "As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq." Dropping bombs from airplanes is, of course, an act of war; the United States is not fighting another war in Iraq, but the same one that began in 1990, escalated dramatically in 2003, and did not end with the departure of American troops in 2011. Wars do not magically end when the United States redeploys ground troops from the combat theater; they end when the political objectives of the combatants are achieved, or when the combatants acknowledge that their goals are unachievable. When we stopped fighting, our enemies gained heart from our departure, regrouped and redoubled their effort to good effect, and now we are back fighting them again. Defeating them now will be far harder and more costly, in blood and treasure, than would have been preventing their rise to power in the first place.