President Barack Obama laid out a compelling but narrow interest in resuming American airstrikes Friday in Iraq. American military airpower is — for the moment at least — the only deterrent preventing the continued slaughter of Iraqi Christians and other minorities at the hands of a Sunni extremist offshoot of al-Qaida, and the United States should intervene to save tens of thousands of otherwise doomed civilians. But the administration needs to be up front about what this bombing campaign can and cannot accomplish, because Americans will not support a new undefined adventure.
Friday's airstrikes came only hours after Obama announced he had authorized new military and humanitarian support for as many as 40,000 Christian and Kurdish religious minorities who are under siege in northern Iraq. The refugees flooded to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region after fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ordered them to convert to Islam or face execution. The militants have been pushing forward for days, summarily executing scores of people and trapping thousands in the mountains without food and water. Iraq's human rights ministry said Friday that several hundred women from the Yazidi minority had been taken captive by ISIS militants — many of them the widows of male refugees the fighters killed.
The U.S. airstrikes will help protect American diplomats and military forces stationed near Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. The aerial presence will also protect U.S. cargo planes as they fly low over the war zone to drop food, water, medicines and other supplies to refugees who are dying from heat, hunger and dehydration. The show of force is a display of unity with Kurdish peshmerga troops, who stepped up to fight the militants after Iraqi troops abandoned their posts and U.S.-issued weapons as ISIS advanced.
The American campaign could ease the immediate suffering, stabilize the refugee situation, buy the Kurds time, downgrade ISIS's military capabilities and even create political breathing room in the capital, Baghdad, to negotiate the ouster of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the establishment of a new unity government. But while Obama insists the United States won't return with boots on the ground, any aerial campaign runs the risk of U.S. flyers being downed in hostile territory. And to what level must the sectarian killing subside for this humanitarian mission to be brought to an end?
There is a strong moral argument to try to end this slaughter, and the United States has clear interests in protecting its personnel and leverage in the Kurdish region, and in stemming ISIS's fast-growing threat to Iraq's central government. But these are stopgap measures until Iraq forms a truly inclusive government that can instill confidence among its security forces and its people. America cannot do from the air what Iraqis won't do on the ground. That's why this military mission is as dangerous as it is necessary.
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