My initial response to the President’s announcement tonight is that he’s done the right thing:
President Obama on Thursday announced he had authorized limited airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq, scrambling to avert the fall of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and returning the United States to a significant battlefield role in Iraq for the first time since the last American soldier left the country at the end of 2011.
Speaking at the White House on Thursday night, Mr. Obama also said that American military aircraft had dropped food and water to tens of thousands of Iraqis trapped on a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq, having fled the militants, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who threaten them with what Mr. Obama called “genocide.”
“Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” Mr. Obama said in a somber statement delivered from the State Dining Room. “Well, today America is coming to help.”
This is key:
“As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq,” said Mr. Obama, who built his run for the White House in part around his opposition to the war in Iraq.
I think he means it, and I think he’s going to make good on it. It is my devout hope that the US kills as many ISIS berserkers as we possible can. I saw today video of a Christian child who had been decapitated by these monsters, and heads of Christians on pikes. There was news today that they were slaughtering Yazidi men and taking their wives as plunder. They are worse than Waffen SS. I’m pretty strongly noninterventionist, but that is not an absolute position, especially not when we can fairly be blamed for setting off this crisis. As they say in Texas, some people just need killin’.
The Middle East has confounded every American president since Carter. Can’t leave it; can’t fix it either.
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) August 8, 2014
UPDATE: It’s certainly fair to ask why I was so against any US military intervention in Syria, but support a limited intervention here. For one, in Syria, we did not know who the good guys were. Our government decided Assad was the evil party, and he certainly is wicked. But was he more wicked than those who fight him? Unclear. It is certainly now more clear that Assad was and is far less evil than the strongest force arrayed against him, ISIS. I still do not believe we have any business involving ourselves in the Syrian civil war.
In this particular case, the unspeakable evil of ISIS threatens a wholesale massacre of entire populations of Christians and other religious minorities. Plus there is reason to believe that it will use the Mosul dam as a weapon against its enemies downstream, unleashing a tsunami that could kill tens of thousands, and create a staggering refugee crisis. Finally, and most importantly from a realist standpoint, ISIS is now directly and ominously threatening the stability of the Kurdish state, the existence of which is in US national interests.
I strongly do not believe we should have troops on the ground in Iraq. Insofar as we can support the refugees with humanitarian supplies, and the Kurdish peshmerga with air strikes, and by sending guns and ammunition, we should.
ISIS has strengthened itself with American weapons captured from the feckless Iraqi forces. But that can’t be the whole story about how these bandit berserkers became such an effective fighting force. It’s worth going back to look at this June piece by Steve Clemons piece about how Our Friends The Saudis have their fingerprints all over ISIS. Excerpt:
But two of the most successful factions fighting Assad’s forces are Islamist extremist groups: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latter of which is now amassing territory in Iraq and threatening to further destabilize the entire region. And that success is in part due to the support they have received from two Persian Gulf countries: Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s military and economic largesse has made its way to Jabhat al-Nusra, to the point that a senior Qatari official told me he can identify al-Nusra commanders by the blocks they control in various Syrian cities. But ISIS is another matter. As one senior Qatari official stated, “ISIS has been a Saudi project.”
UPDATE.2: Some good contrary comments by readers. Kurt Gayle writes:
Back on June 19th, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis wrote “Questions to Ask Before Bombing Iraq — Advocates of immediate airstrikes still haven’t learned the past decade’s most basic lessons.”
Col. Davis asked these five questions:
” Tactically, will airstrikes against the ISIS prove decisive militarily, or will they exacerbate the violence?”
 “Since ISIS personnel have the ability to blend in and out of the civil population, how will our jets or drones identify the ‘bad’ civilians from the ‘good’ civilians?”
 “Who will act as ground controllers to ensure bombers strike only valid military targets?”
 “What will be the American culpability if U.S. bombs kill civilians, or if air planners are given false intelligence that results in political opponents of the regime being killed?”
 “Will the attacks cause the population to reject the rebels—or to support them even more strongly?”
To date none of these five questions have been answered.
And AnotherBeliever, who has actually served in Iraq with the US military, and who speaks Arabic, writes:
“. There is really no threat to civilians because all the Christians and other minorities have fled their villages.”
Well, actually not every village or town is monolithic like that. Sometimes they are mixed or at least in very close proximity to each other. Often families are mixed. It’s not that simple on the ground, and air strikes aren’t so good at complicated. They might be useful in defending a humanitarian corridor to a safe space, or in defending a line in front of Erbil from massed fighters.
But this doesn’t prevent ISIS from infiltrating at all, they can be nearly impossible to tell apart from civilians if they so choose. They don’t have to mass, when they do it’s for show. Melt into the city over several days, and whip out the guns and black banners at the appointed hour, in the crowded square. Take power by stealth, hold it by intimidation.
The way to beat these guys is not brute force. The best fielded military on the planet tried it once already, remember? Military force is useless absent a strategy. And the strategy for this fight is very twisty and largely not in our hands. The terrain is not physical. It is influence and psychology and ties of loyalty and obligation. If that battleground is not won, then those opposing ISIS will continue to fail, regardless of how many air strikes the West delivers. If that battleground is won, then the tide will turn.
UPDATE.3: I respect what Conor Friedersdorf says here, and understand that he’s talking to people like me:
I withhold judgment while acknowledging the difficult decision Obama faces—and my fear that he intends to intervene more fully than he is acknowledging. I have no idea whether the course he’s setting is imprudent, prescient, or something in between.
If anyone tells you otherwise, read what they’ve written on Iraq since 2002. Have they been wrong on huge questions? Did they anticipate major turning points in the past? Odds are they have no idea what will happen next.
He’s right about this. Honesty compels me to concede that my judgment is unsound to when it comes to recommending intervention in Iraq. I’ll walk back my initial endorsement of the president’s decision to launch air strikes (but not to deliver humanitarian aid, and not to arm the Kurds; arm them to the teeth). Were I the president, I could not sit back and watch those ISIS fanatics massacre defenseless Christians and others. But I could not look back over the last 10 years of US policy in the Mideast and believe that there could be any good outcome from our involvement again. Only less terrible outcomes.