US airstrikes against Islamic State show once again there are no good options in Middle East

Tough decision: Barack Obama with the National Security Council. EPA/Pete Souza

Barack Obama’s decision to authorise the bombing of the forces of the Islamic State, or ISIS as it is commonly known, in northern Iraq has justifiably caught many observers by surprise. After all, the president has devoted six years to extracting America from military involvement in the region. He has generally preferred to rely on the diplomatic and economic instruments there – whether he is trying to bring Hamas and Israel to the bargaining table or cajole Egypt towards democracy.

Under his stewardship, America has relied on the use of force against militants on a comparatively selective basis – mostly through gathering intelligence, espionage and then drone attacks. So why has he returned to more conventional instruments of war at this point? And what does this action presage for the remainder of his presidency in terms of his Middle Eastern policy?

In Thursday’s news conference, the president reassured the American people that this was an exceptional case, limited in its scope and duration. He justified his actions on both humanitarian and national security grounds.

Airstrikes are authorised.

The humanitarian justification is that the bombing of militants is being co-ordinated with the delivery of aid to tens of thousands of Yezidis trapped by militants on Mount Sinjar and Christians fleeing Qaraqosh. They, the president insisted, face the realistic prospect of slaughter or starvation without American assistance. In his own statement, US secretary of state John Kerry echoed the president’s sentiments. Kerry too uttered the word “genocide” in describing their plight – one regarded as taboo in U.S. foreign policy circles because, once invoked, America is required by its own domestic laws to intervene to protect civilians.

The national security justification is the need to protect Iraq’s Kurds. This has been a consistent theme of the four most recent presidents, predating the unseating of Saddam Hussein. ISIS forces have routed Kurdish fighters, seizing towns around Erbil and the strategically important Mosul Dam. They now threaten to overwhelm the retreating and undersupplied Kurdish forces, and to make significant incursions in the Kurdish region itself. This prospect is alarming to both Europe and the US. The Kurds are considered by both to be among the most stable and unstintingly western-oriented minorities in the Middle East. Their part of Iraq has been exempt from the national epidemic of violence and has flourished economically while the broader economy has wilted.

Indeed, the West has largely failed to support Kurdish claims for independence only because of broader geopolitical fears that doing so will create even more instability in a fragile region. Representative Adam Smith of Washington State, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, put it succinctly when he reportedly said to a New York Times reporter that: “The Kurds are worth helping and defending.”

But Obama has a third concern, one that may outweigh both of these justifications. It is the safety and welfare of Americans living in both Erbil and Baghdad. Until recently, Iraq’s political leadership expressed a breezy confidence that Baghdad was safe from militant forces. That confidence has crumbled – as the result of both its military’s abject performance and the sustained political infighting about the selection of a new government in the aftermath of April’s election. It is very hard to fight a war successfully when the politicians are in disarray and the military are ineffectual.

Barrage of criticism

Under these circumstances, the president is mindful of the domestic barrage of criticism he faced in the aftermath of the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi and the resulting death of four Americans. Military intervention at this point does not ensure that Americans in Iraq will be protected. But it limits the possibility of them being captured or killed. That would truly be a political nightmare for the president. The American public isn’t so concerned about the political sensitivities. But – despite broader reservations – the American public will sympathise with any initiative intended to protect their compatriots.

Inevitably, Obama has encountered three sources of criticism. The first is from traditional adventurist Republicans who think that the president isn’t going far enough. Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called for more military action and “the provision of military and other assistance to our Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian partners.” The second combines those Republicans who generally favour American retrenchment with more liberal peace activists. These two odd political bedfellows consistently demand US military disengagement, suggesting that it is the role of other organizations such as the United Nations to act as the “World’s Policeman” rather than the US.

US aircraft went into action against ISIS artillery near Erbil in northern Iraq. EPA/Lorelei Vander Griend

Finally, perhaps the most significant source of criticism comes from a variety of Shia and Sunnis in Baghdad. Sami al-Askeri, advisor to Nouri Al-Maliki, is only one of many who vehemently argue that the president is only intervening now because the lives of non-Muslims are at stake. As far as he is concerned, it is the only reason that – in Obama’s own words - “America is coming to help.”

The two domestic sources of criticism are a routine part of contemporary American politics. It is this third source of criticism that will potentially have the two most enduring effects.

Western ‘crusade’

First, the president insists that this is a limited action, a product of the sectarianism plaguing Baghdad and the resulting inability of Iraq’s leadership to get their political act together. But that claim will likely be treated with distain, not only across the Muslim countries of the Middle East but also within the poor Muslim neighborhoods of Europe that have become a fertile recruiting ground for Islamic militants.

Militant leaders have consistently characterised their primary conflict as being with the invading Christian West, even as they have slaughtered fellow Muslims. For them, America’s hasty disengagement from Libya, its failure to act in Syria, and its refusal to take a more aggressive position towards Israeli incursions into Gaza all contrast with its protection of Christian civilians in Iraq. This apparent inconsistency will provide militants with the fodder for their recruitment campaigns. They will inevitably characterise this episode as a one that exposes the West “real” agenda – as crusaders.

A second, less obvious consequence may be felt thousands of miles away – in Ukraine. Russian forces used ethnic solidarity and the protection of minorities as a pretext to invade Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. They claimed the same in the recent annexation of Crimea. With 20,000 Russian forces now camped on Ukraine’s eastern border, Obama’s decision to protect the Christian and Kurdish minorities in Iraq may provide Vladimir Putin with the current precedent to justify a large scale invasion of Eastern Ukraine in defense of what he has characterised as its oppressed minority.

The president’s domestic support for his limited military action in Iraq may be fully justified on humanitarian grounds. But the shallow support it enjoys at home will become even thinner if it gives Putin the excuse to launch a military offensive. Once again, the Middle East ably demonstrates the complexities of international politics – and that none of the options are good ones, even for the most well-intentioned of policymakers.