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Meghan L. O'Sullivan

Can Obama Rise to the Moment in Iraq?

Kurdish peshmerga, waiting on the friend.  
Kurdish peshmerga, waiting on the friend.  

To many, President Barack Obama's authorization of airstrikes in Iraq -- and their commencement a few hours ago -- appears to be a major shift in U.S. posture. Certainly, this is the hope of millions of Kurds, tens of thousands of Yezidis, and countless other Iraqis desperate to stave off further gains by the radical fighters of the Islamic State in the Levant. Undoubtedly, it was a tough decision for the president, who has long been reluctant to use force in the Middle East and has prided himself on having "ended" the war in Iraq.

But is the shift as consequential as it seems? Obama's rhetoric on Thursday suggests we should be cautious in over-interpreting the turn of events, and very concerned about the sustainability of American engagement.

Strangely, Obama rationalized the use of limited force almost entirely on humanitarian grounds. He was correct in portraying the scene on Sinjar mountain -- where as many as 40,000 Yezidi Iraqis face dehydration, starvation and possible mass slaughter -- as a humanitarian crisis. And he is right in calling attention to the fact that ISIS's drive to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria could result in genocide against the Yezidis, whose global population is less than one million. As the president powerfully stated: "When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then ... the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide"