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Back to Iraq

Aug 13, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

Renewed U.S. military involvement is narrow for now, but the horizon is cloudy

President Barack Obama has said his decision to re-involve American military forces in Iraq was an extraordinarily difficult one. Let's hope so. Our previous armed foray there wasn't exactly a triumph.

Americans who are wary of a renewed war in Iraq -- and polling shows that to be most U.S. citizens -- can take some reassurance that the new military action so far has been in a small area of the country, that it has involved relatively low-risk air strikes against specific targets and even lower-risk drone operations, that it comes in response to verified and re-verified intelligence, and that there appears to be a clear objective.

The American war planes and unmanned aircraft responded to a cry for help after Islamic State insurgents (still being referred to as ISIS in some reports and simply IS in others) had isolated a big group of Iraq Kurds on a mountainside. Some had been killed, and all were in danger.

Here is how The New York Times put it:

"The Kurdish capital, Erbil, once an island of pro-American tranquillity, was in the path of rampaging Sunni militants, the chairman, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, told the president. And to the west, the militants had trapped thousands of members of Iraqi minority groups on a barren mountaintop, with dwindling supplies, raising concerns about a potential genocide."

Other confirmed reports described decapitation, the killing of children and unarmed women and the elderly, with bodies strung up in public, and a vow from the IS militants to kill all the Kurds, most of whom are Christian, in a barbarous act of "ethnic cleansing."

Even the Vatican, which voiced strong opposition to the start of the Iraq War in 2003, said military action in this case was warranted. That's rare from the pope.

So the United States acted. The jets roared through. The drones hovered. A few ground forces made tracks in the Iraqi dirt. Today it was announced that a few dozen more are headed in.

Campaigning for office six years ago, Obama vowed to end the Iraq war. U.S. combat units left Iraq late in 2011, supposedly for good. The new involvement is on a tiny scale compared to that, but it is a movement of U.S. military actions and personnel in a direction the president never wanted.

Some years ago the TV comedian turned political commentator Dennis Miller said the world was fortunate to have the United States because we are "the country with a conscience." That was the sentiment the president tapped a few days ago when announcing that he had authorized the air strike to prevent a genocide. On that day, and again on Wednesday morning, he also swore the new action will not lead to full-scale resurrection of American war-making in Iraq, which he had voted against 11 years ago as a U.S. senator and which he had worked to end as president.

Everyone ought to hope he means what he says and that conditions will permit that policy to be maintained. But there is the example of history to trouble us. Many presidents have made pronouncements about what they wouldn't do in war, and many times those pledges have gone awry.

In this case, the requisite conditions combined to lead Obama to act. This is where, how and why it started. That much is clear enough. When it will stop is much less so. These things seem never to end so cleanly as they begin.

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