Why Obama's Iraq Intervention Is Different


President Obama made an announcement Thursday night that harkened back to his predecessor's defining decision in office.

Now both Bush and Obama have led military intervention in Iraq. Actually, the trend goes back even further than that.

Following the first two airstrikes against IS militants near Erbil on the morning of Aug. 8 , the U.S. military launched two more against "a terrorist mortar position," and an ISIL vehicle convoy, according to a Pentagon statement.

Obama's announcement, though, is far from a full-scale invasion. In order to protect Kurdish towns and refugees in northern Iraq from the ongoing march of militants from the Islamic State (IS), the U.S. has greenlit airstrikes on IS forces (as well as airdrops of food and supplies for the Kurds).

The background: IS began seizing Iraqi cities earlier this summer. Militants eventually made their way into Kurdish territory, where they started taking over towns despite the Kurds' superior military. They now sit "just minutes" away from the Kurdistan capital of Erbil, according to McClatchy.

There are two reasons for American interference now. One is that Erbil is currently home to dozens of American diplomats and military personnel, meaning IS is threatening American citizens if they attack Erbil.

Another is the situation on Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of Yazidis are holed up. An ethnic and religious minority, the Yazidis are trapped between starvation on the mountainside and potential death at the hands of IS, which controls all the surrounding roads. Obama says the goal of these strikes, apart from protecting U.S. personnel is to prevent a "genocide" and stem the humanitarian disaster looming over the Yazidis.

What happens now? The above two reasons are the ones Obama gave in his announcement of military action. While supply drops and airstrikes have already begun, the president promised that this would not be a "sustained campaign."

The last campaign, of course, was nothing if not sustained. After nearly a decade of fighting and trillions of dollars in cost, there's a reason people are suspicious of any military involvement in Iraq.

The good news is that, with no boots on the ground and no regime to change, it's much harder to get roped into a war. The bad news is that, well, we have no idea what happens from here. Will airstrikes be enough to turn the tide against IS, and can Iraqi and Kurdish military forces handle it from there?

If not, there are still 800 U.S. special operations soldiers in Iraq. But involving them is a huge step — and one Obama probably isn't anxious to take.