8 Aug 2014

‘Today America is coming to help’

After months of weighing the costs of engaging again in Iraq, even as IS advanced all over the map, claiming Mosul, Fallujah, and threatening Baghdad, the US  President Barack Obama, on Thursday evening, addressed the nation.


Speaking from the White House, President Obama said he’d authorised two operations – one targeted at protecting American personnel in Erbil, the other to provide humanitarian support to tens of thousands of Yazidis facing ‘genocide.’ If necessary the president said he’d authorised airstrikes to break the IS siege of the minority group who’ve sought refuge on Mount Sinjar.

It’s a momentous step by a president who’s sought to define his administration by disentangling his country from old wars (Iraq, Afghanistan), and avoiding any new ones (Syria). In June, responding to the rapid advance of Isis into Iraq’s north from neighbouring Syria, President Obama authorised the deployment of hundreds of special forces soldiers to observe and establish joint operation centres in Baghdad, and Erbil, as well as assisting and training Iraqi soldiers in the field.

Read more: thousands of minority Iraqis marooned on mountain – video

Even so, he has forcefully maintained this is not America’s fight. This is Iraq’s crisis, and only a political solution (preferably not involving Nouri al Maliki) which reunifies and rebuilds relations with aggrieved Sunni populations will provide the basis for fixing it, and stopping IS. Even on Thursday afternoon, his spokesman intoned that “there are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq.” Which will come as a surprise to American pilots tonight poised at the controls of their fighter aircraft.

So what has changed? Well, it seems after weeks of debate the sudden advances of IS in the past few days into Kurdish territory has forced the decision to act. The measures that might be taken framed by the president’s statement in the most palatable way possible for American voters nervous of any return to Iraq. Firstly, the catastrophe facing tens of thousands of mainly Yazidi Iraqis stranded on that mountain top can be simply communicated to war weary Americans as a clear humanitarian crisis. Christians and Yazidis are religious minorities being targetted by the ‘barbaric’ Islamists.

The Iraqi government has asked for America’s help. And critically, President Obama described that US mandate to help, its unique capacity to ‘act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.’ Already overnight, American cargo planes have dropped food, medicine and water. Secondly, the president described the IS advance on Erbil as a threat to American lives, namely the more than 30 state department diplomats in the US consulate in the city, as well as potentially hundreds of military advisers.

Read more: fear is key in the Islamic State’s purge of Iraq

He says American aircraft will take action and target convoys if IS move toward the city, and threaten American personnel, or American interests. Which is potentially very good news for the Kurds. There is still a possibility the US will launch no air strikes. The president has described a campaign limited by certain conditions (if IS move to Erbil and threaten US citizens; if airstrikes are necessary to break the siege on Mount Sinjar).

But those commitments alone go well beyond any previous pledge from Washington to the country where it fought such a long and costly war. In his statement, the president was careful to assure the American people they won’t be dragged into another war in Iraq – a pledge they’ll expect him to honour. But for one short speech, the president spoke as a man of action leading a country that does something to avoid the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. “That’s who we are,” he said.

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