WASHINGTON-Even as President Obama continues to insist that there will be no return of American "boots on the ground" in Iraq, stark reality is severely testing what has come to be known as the Obama Doctrine-that the use of U.S. military power has limits defined by America's own national interests.
His decision to airdrop humanitarian aid to a non-Islamic ethnic group isolated in Kurdish Iraq by threatening forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and authorization of air strikes against the militants is a reluctant first step in that direction.
The president's dilemma was illustrated in his remarks at week's end that "while America has never been able to right every wrong, America has been able to make the world a more secure and prosperous place. I have been careful to reduce calls time and again to turn to our military. When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action (but) when we have a unique capacity to avoid a massacre, the United States cannot turn a blind eye."
In ordering his latest limited response, Obama reiterated the restraint in which he was moving. "As commander-in-chief," he said, "I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq. And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq because there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces."
This posture is in keeping with Obama's long-term strategy, dictated by his commitment as a presidential candidate in 2008 and since then in the Oval Office, to end the American involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His withdrawal of all combat troops in Iraq fulfilled that part of that commitment and he clearly is determined to not go back on it, and to continue his announced withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
In a sense, his firm stand, spelled out in his speech earlier this year at the West Point graduation of the latest class of Army officers, has anchored the Obama Doctrine in terms of logic, as well as determination. He said then that "the bottom line" was that "U.S, military action can't be the only or even primary component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the biggest hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
The observation was a reference to his strong preference for diplomacy as an alternative, constantly emphasized and illustrated by the frenetic travel of his second secretary of state, John Kerry. He has been shuttling from crisis to crisis in Iraq, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian nightmare and Ukraine, where Obama pointedly said from the start there was "no military solution" involving U.S. force.
Quite obviously, the Obama Doctrine has been driven by this president's revulsion to his predecessor's misconceived 2003 invasion of Iraq, driven as it was by flawed intelligence and all the complications deriving from it. At the same time, it should be remembered that in Obama's surprising reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, he spoke of the concept of the just war requiring the use of force for humanitarianism and self-defense.
But he also said at West Point: "Since World War II, some of the most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences-without building critical support and legitimacy for our actions, without briefing the American people about the sacrifices."
In terms that could be raised in regard to his latest actions in Iraq, Obama noted that when it is questionable that the U.S. national interest is involved, "the threshold for military action must be higher." That appears to be the question he's weighing now, as he contemplates further such action against the Islamic State in Kurdish Iraq that is returning both aggression and terrorism to the country America supposedly "liberated" in George W. Bush's invasion.