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
Obama's critics draw a direct connection between that approach and his decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq in late 2011. He did so in large part because Iraq's government refused to sign a security agreement providing U.S. troops immunity, but White House opponents say the president should have pushed harder for a deal in order to avoid the type of situation now unfolding in Iraq.
"We are already paying a very heavy price for our inaction, and if we do not change course, the costs of our inaction will only grow," Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a joint statement following Obama's remarks.
They called on Obama to extend his authorization of airstrikes against the Islamic State beyond Iraq and into Syria, a step administration officials said they were not prepared to take at this time.
For Obama, the threat of undermining his own legacy on Iraq could hardly come at a worse time.
His overall approval ratings have plummeted, as has the public's opinion of his foreign policy. And he has faced a barrage of questions about his ability to influence world events, from Russia's provocations in Ukraine to the latest round of clashes between Israel and Hamas.
Yet in a sign of his continued wariness about the effectiveness of military action, Obama made clear that even if he did inject U.S. airpower into Iraq, it would not solve that nation's myriad problems.
"There's no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq," he said.
Editor's Note: Julie Pace has covered the White House for the AP since 2009. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC