Two F/A-18s, two 500-pound bombs. That was the Obama administration’s first military response to the rise of a caliphate in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. It’s not an answer to the situation in Kurdistan that has been growing increasingly desperate for days, but it’s a start. Airstrikes are part of what must be a much broader campaign to defeat the Islamic State and stabilize Iraq.
Announcing his authorization for military action on Thursday night, President Obama focused on the humanitarian tragedy, with jihadists executing thousands of men and boys, enslaving women, and driving hundreds of thousands of religious minorities from their homes.
This understates the case for American action: Defeating the Islamic State is a crucial national-security priority. The organization President Obama quite recently derided as al-Qaeda’s JV team has had a championship year, which demands much more than one fusillade of airstrikes. The Islamic State has surprised with its effectiveness, and it’s become clear that the Kurdish peshmerga paramilitary forces are underequipped to fight it.
We need a comprehensive strategy within Iraq and across the region. Arming the Kurds and pushing the Iraqi government in the right direction is essential. We also need to reengage with the Sunni tribes that were key to defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq the first time around, in 2006–08, and fund and arm those that are still potential allies. We should work much harder to aid the anti-ISIS opposition in Syria, since the extremist group’s ascendancy during the Syrian bloodbath helped it in launching its offensive in Iraq.
But the president has laid out no strategy for what the U.S. wants to accomplish in Iraq or how we’ll do it. Pinprick airstrikes aren’t a substitute for one. The Islamic State’s forces weren’t, as of a week or two ago, prepared for an American aerial campaign. Now, with Obama’s drip-drip operation, they can prepare, and easy targets will rapidly disappear.
The problem here is much bigger than Iraq, literally — the Islamic State is making gains in Syria, and clearly would like to attack the West. It’s good the president is rousing himself to respond, but he needs to truly grapple with the policy failure represented by his near-total disengagement from Iraq. He didn’t “end” the war. He abandoned it. Now, it will take concerted U.S. action to ensure that the Islamic State isn’t its big winner.