President Barack Obama’s decision to approve airstrikes and humanitarian air drops in Iraq began to come together at nightfall on Aug. 6, between the end of the African leaders’ summit he’d hosted and a dinner with his wife and some friends.
During a five-minute limo ride back to the White House from the State Department with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey, Obama’s fears were confirmed. The offensive by militants with the Islamic State group had reached a critical point, according to an administration official who asked for anonymity to outline the private discussions.
That chat turned into an hour-long meeting in the Oval Office with Dempsey, Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough and top national security advisers.
Two White House Situation Room deliberations followed on Aug. 7 -- a 90-minute session during which Obama was told that a genocide could unfold without U.S. intervention and later, after the president broke off to sign a Veterans Affairs bill, a final two-hour huddle in the afternoon.
“America is coming to help,” he announced in nationally televised comments that night. U.S. food and water drops were conducted and then U.S. jets and drones yesterday carried out three bombing missions in northern Iraq, hitting militant offensive positions and a convoy.
The plans came together quickly because, as Obama wrapped up his Africa summit, U.S. intelligence and reports from Iraqis and Kurdish forces were painting an agonizing humanitarian picture and raised the prospect of U.S. security risks that the president couldn’t ignore.
Iraqi government forces had tried and failed to get aid to the thousands of minority Yezidis on Sinjar Mountain, amid reports of children dying and militants raping and killing members of the religious minority who were trying to flee.
At the same time, the jihadists had forced the Kurds’ Peshmerga militia back from the Mosul Dam and other critical positions. The advance threatened to reach Erbil, a critical city and site of a U.S. diplomatic compound and military liaison center.
A full breach of the dam could send a wave of water directly threatening, among many other things, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to the south.
Obama, who won his presidency in 2008 as an opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, pulled the last U.S. combat forces from there three years ago. He had been resisting pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to re-engage as he urged Iraq’s leaders to form a new, more inclusive government to help tamp down the insurgency before committing U.S. firepower.
Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power were patched in by video for portions of Obama’s discussions this week. Biden also phoned Iraqi President Fouad Masoum and Iraqi Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani to keep them informed, according to White House statements.
Unlike some past internal debates on foreign policy, these deliberations weren’t divisive. Instead, the focus was on precisely how and when to act.
Obama, 53, had quickly decided the U.S. would use military transports to drop food and water to try to save the lives of religious minorities trapped on Sinjar Mountain.
He then considered the options for airstrikes on the militants, approving the plan late on the afternoon of Aug. 7, after which he announced his authorization in remarks to reporters at the White House. Obama told aides he wanted clear delineations: no return to U.S. combat, and limited military and humanitarian missions in Iraq rather than a broad operation against the Sunni militant group that could spill across borders.