The U.S. is bombing Iraq for the first time in three years, this time to slow the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
If it seems like too little, too late, that’s because the well-financed al-Qaeda faction is moving swiftly across Iraq. It’s been two months since ISIS delivered a shock by taking over the northern city of Mosul, smack in the heart of Iraqi oil country.
Along the way, they’ve been embarrassing the Iraqi military that the U.S. government funded, trained and armed. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government ostensibly controlling the army is obviously not up to the task of managing the country, despite billions in U.S. support.
That’s no surprise, really. Nor is the fact that the White House is wrapping the current operations in a humanitarian cloth. President Obama said he decided to call in air strikes to protect American personnel still on the ground, three years after the formal withdrawal of troops, and to “avert a massacre” of a Christian minority ISIS threatened to slaughter if they didn’t convert to Islam. The specter of another Benghazi attack also figured in the decision-making.
What really appears to have spurred the White House into action is the advance of ISIS on Erbil, a longtime safe haven in northern Kurdistan. It happens to house a U.S joint operations center. There, a handful of U.S. military personnel coordinate with the local peshmerga fighters that have kept Kurdistan and its oil fields safe since the start of the Second Gulf War.
Kurdistan has always been the favorite child of Iraq’s regions. It’s relatively well-governed and, more importantly, harbors the biggest chunk of Iraq’s oil and gas reserves. The capture of the Mosul dam by ISIS—which could be used to flood cities as far away as Baghdad and knock out electricity at the same time—also seems to have prompted the U.S. into action.
The airstrikes are, of course, a tactical show of force to remind ISIS who’s got the air power to blow them into smithereens, and discourage further advances. In Pentagon/White House thinking, air strikes are casual sex versus the long-term commitment a boots-on-the-ground campaign requires.
Naturally, humanitarian reasons are always a good story to obscure or direct attention away from the real motivations behind military action. Remember Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993? Set up under the U.N.’s rubric as a mission to help Somali famine victims, it became a U.S.-led military operation to flush out disparate militias blocking food aid. Even George H.W. Bush visited the country, despite the risks.
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