Just when we thought we were out

We’re bombing Iraq again:

U.S. fighter jets bombed an Islamic State position outside Irbil on Friday, the first use of munitions by American forces since President Barack Obama authorized military action to defend the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan from Islamist attack.

In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said that the strike came at approximately 6:45 a.m. Eastern time (2:45 p.m. in Iraq) when two F/A-18 fighters dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a “mobile artillery piece” that the Pentagon said was being used to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil “where U.S. personnel are located.”

In a nationally televisied speech Thursday, Obama had said he’d authorized the U.S. military to use force in Iraq to protect American personnel and he specifically noted that the Kurdish capital is home to a large American consulate and a recently established Joint Operations Command Center.

We’re also dropping food and water to the refugees stranded outside Sinjar.

My usual skepticism about this kind of thing aside, I’m having a hard time getting too worked up about this.

Maybe it’s because IS is just that wretched (they are) or because I’ve been really affected by the threat that an entire ancient culture (the Yazidis) could be extinguished, but I’m willing to wait and see on this intervention. This is an administration that has by now shown itself to be very reluctant to get into military scraps in the Middle East, to the point where our inaction over Syria makes even an intervention skeptic like me cringe, even though I can’t figure out how we could possibly topple Assad without inadvertently handing Syria off to the same people we’re now bombing in Iraq. I know there’s some criticism going around about how this just proves Obama has no overall Middle East strategy, and I can understand and even agree with that, but if your argument against acting in Iraq is that we haven’t acted in Syria, that’s just dumb. Even if you think we’re wrong not to intervene in Syria, how is one related to the other?

You could make the argument that our intervention in Iraq does reflect a consistent policy of opposition to IS, assuming our reluctance to go into Syria has anything to do with our concerns about helping IS there, albeit indirectly. I do think our worst-case scenario in Syria is IS coming to power, meaning that we would only want to assist in taking out Assad if we could be sure that the “right” rebels would replace him, but that’s still not to say that we’ve actually got a coherent regional strategy.

I disagree with this Max Fisher piece at Vox; without knowing the scope of the bombing campaign, it’s impossible to determine that our message to IS is that we’re more or less OK with their control over the rest of northern Iraq outside of Kurdistan. In my opinion, what this decision reflects is the fact that we (the US) didn’t take IS seriously when it captured Mosul, we (and here I am specifically including myself) assumed that the Peshmerga would be more than a match for them, and we (back to the US again) figured that Baghdad would get its act together in time to blunt the IS offensive and to make inroads with the unhappy Iraqi Sunnis. Then, we figured, it would just be a matter of letting IS’s brutality cost it any local support, and that would be that. But Baghdad is still a mess, the Peshmerga are doing the best they can but they’re clearly outgunned, and you have tens of thousands of trapped, dying refugees who can’t wait for the pieces to fall in the right place and for IS to burn up its local goodwill. IS also now has contol of Mosul Dam, from which it can really do a lot of harm to a lot of people, so getting that out of their hands is another urgent concern.

It would not at all surprise me to see an extended air campaign devoted to really degrading IS’s capabilities (leveling the playing field for the Peshmerga) and driving them back into Mosul (hopefully we’ll stop there, because the potential for civilian casualties goes up drastically if we start bombing Mosul). Some political movement has to come out of Baghdad soon, though, because none of this will matter if the country’s civilian leadership can’t bring Arab Sunnis back into the fold.

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