WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama proudly embraces a foreign policy that, after a decade of war, includes a resistance to military action in hotspots around the globe.
That reluctance was no more apparent than in Iraq, where thousands of American died in a war that became increasingly unpopular. But this week, the president who campaigned on ending the war in Iraq waded back into that troubled country with airstrikes.
Obama said that he did so to protect U.S. military and diplomatic officials from Islamic militants in northern Iraq.
But foreign policy experts say a skeptical president was finally pushed to act to try to save members of one of Iraq’s oldest minorities, stranded without food or water on a mountaintop where temperatures can reach 120 degrees, and with militant jihadists below, reportedly bent on giving them a choice of religious conversion or death.
The airstrikes — coupled with food and water drops — could help Iraqi and Kurdish forces rescue the Yazidis, who are being threatened by the rebel fighters of the Islamic State in a geographically isolated area.
“The fact is that innocent civilians are dying today, and these airstrikes just might help save a lot of lives at a manageable risk to U.S. forces,” said Charles Dunlap, a former Air Force major general who is now a professor specializing in warfare policy and strategy at the Duke University School of Law.
Much of Obama’s political career is intertwined with his views and actions in Iraq. He spoke out against the invasion early and often cites the winding down of the war as one of his most significant achievements. But his action this week — which critics and even some supporters labeled as too little, too late — threatens that legacy and again calls into question whether he was correct to withdraw U.S. troops in 2011.
Former President George W. Bush signed the agreement in 2008 that set the deadline for the withdrawal, but Republicans have long blamed Obama for not allowing some troops to stay.
Barry Pavel, vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank, said that while Bush may have overused the military, Obama has turned too far in the other direction.
“The Obama administration over-learned that lesson,” Pavel said. “They have an over-appreciation of the risks of action and an under-appreciation of the risks of inaction. He did not want to do this but … you can’t wish problems away.”
Many in Congress have pressed Obama to intervene in the civil war in Syria, where more than 170,000 people have died. He considered airstrikes last year, but eventually backed off and endorsed a Russian plan to eliminate the regime’s cache of chemical weapons. The weapons were removed, but the war continues.
“We have not taken action to address every humanitarian challenge that is faced across the region with our military,” said a senior administration official knowledgeable about Iraq and Syria but not authorized to speak publicly. “So in Syria, for instance, we’ve provided a significant amount of humanitarian aid, but we have not seen a viable military option that is as clear and distinct as what we’re doing to assist the Yazidis.”
Obama says he wants to limit military force to cases where U.S. interests are clearly at risk, Americans are threatened or allies are in danger.
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank, said Obama’s actions are often designed to deal with the immediate problem. In this case, she said, the president is doing the minimal amount that might have been effective months ago.
Indeed, many members of Congress and analysts say they support the action but wished it had come sooner and was part of a long-term strategy for the country and region.
Ken Pollack, former President Bill Clinton’s Persian Gulf adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, said he was sure Obama was angry that “things aren’t working out the way he wanted them to.”
“I think he’s got a lot to answer for,” Pollack said. “He does have himself in a box.”
Already on Friday, some Democrats on Capitol Hill and liberal groups said they worry about mission creep.
Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, a liberal social action group, called the moves in Iraq “deeply disturbing” and said the risks of “unintended consequences and incremental escalation are real and dangerous.”
Obama sought to assure Americans that he would not return ground troops to Iraq.
“As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he told the nation Thursday night.
Obama did intervene in Libya in 2011, but not until organizing an international coalition to remove dictator Moammar Gadhafi. No U.S. troops were deployed on the ground in what Obama later called an operation that could be a “recipe for success in the future.” But the country remains mired in chaos and widespread violence, including the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in 2012.
The United States ramped up its activities in Iraq after Obama announced in mid-June that he would send up to 300 military advisers there and open joint operations centers in response to the country’s request for assistance.
Administration officials say the latest plan began to take shape Saturday after Islamic militants launched what they called a multipronged attack across a wide swath of northern Iraq heavily populated by Christians and Yazidis. On Wednesday, the militants launched another series of attacks.
Obama met with his national security advisers throughout the day Thursday. By the evening, he was delivering yet another address to the nation about Iraq.