Associated Press analysis: Obama puts US on brink of Iraq return

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 8 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama turns to leave the podium after he spoke about the situation in Iraq in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Obama says he's authorized the U.S. military to carry out airstrikes in Iraq against Islamic militants if they advance toward the city of Erbil.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — After years of resisting the pull of more Mideast conflicts, President Barack Obama is ready to return the United States to military action in Iraq, the very country where he accused his predecessor of engaging in a "dumb war."

The president's authorization of airstrikes against militants in Iraq threatens to upend his legacy as the commander in chief who ended the long, unpopular war which killed nearly 4,500 American troops. It also raises fresh questions about whether Obama's desire to end that conflict clouded his assessment of the risks of fully withdrawing U.S. troops, as well as his judgment about the threat posed by the Islamic extremists who have taken advantage of a vulnerable Iraq.

As he addressed a war-weary nation late Thursday, Obama insisted the U.S. was not moving toward another protracted conflict in Iraq.

"I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq," he declared, while also announcing that U.S. military aircrafts had already completed airdrops of humanitarian aid to Iraqi religious minorities under siege.

To be sure, the actions unveiled by Obama are more limited in scope than the full-scale invasion of Iraq that he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Yet the president's maneuvers in Iraq this summer underscore the difficulty in pulling back once the military edges into a tenuous security state. The central rationale for Obama's authorization for military strikes in Iraq is to protect American forces serving in the northern city of Irbil — including some of the same forces the president deployed earlier this summer to help train and assist Iraqi security forces struggling to contain the militants.

Obama also authorized the use of U.S. military strikes to help struggling Iraqi security forces protect civilians. He argued that the U.S. has a responsibility to take action to stop imminent massacres, echoing the rationale he used when the U.S. joined the 2010 NATO bombing campaign in Libya.

Both liberal and conservative interventionists have urged Obama to use similar logic to respond to Syria's civil war, in which more than 170,000 people have died, but he has resisted.

Aides cast Obama's authorization of airstrikes in Iraq as a reaction to a set of fast-moving developments on the ground. Over the past week, the Islamic State group has swept through areas in Iraq's north that are heavily populated by Christians and Yazidis, a people following an ancient religion who fled to the mountains to escape the extremists and are suffering without food and water.

While the situation may be evolving quickly, the conditions that returned the U.S. to the brink of military action in Iraq can be traced back months — or to the president's critics, even years.

As recently as January, Obama was publicly dismissive of the Islamic State group, which at the time was under the al-Qaida banner. In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, he said comparing the upstart group to the terror network established by Osama bin Laden was like comparing a jayvee basketball team to an NBA squad.

"I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian," Obama said.

Even at the time, U.S. intelligence and defense officials were warning about the threat that could be posed by the Islamic State, which had strengthened in Syria amid the chaos of that country's bloody civil war. But Obama's comments reflected his limited appetite for wading back into Iraq or for starting a new military engagement in Syria, where he authorized an air assault last summer after a chemical weapons attack but never gave the order for a strike

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