When U.S. President Barack Obama announced on August 7 that the U.S. military would launch airstrikes on Iraq to stem the advance of the militant group Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), it was quite a dramatic turnaround.

For the time being, the mission will be limited in scope. Beyond offering military advice to the Iraqi military, which the Obama administration had already been providing, the United States will hit at IS targets that are seen to be threatening U.S. interests in and around Bagdad and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish federal region. It will also provide aid and protection for the Yezidi minority in northwestern Iraq, which IS had lately been threatening to exterminate en masse.

Some might question the formal justification for the U.S. intervention. The threat of genocide, for one, does not seem exaggerated: Yezidis are a heterodox sect that IS considers neither Muslim nor a “recognized” non-Muslim minority eligible for IS protection. The militant group, therefore, sees the group as a legitimate target for complete annihilation. In Syria, IS has carried out mass killings of other such groups, so Obama’s fears seem justified. His decision to step in on the Yezidis’ behalf is also consistent with statements during his 2008 presidential campaign that potential genocide would be one of the few things that might change his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq.

However, Obama’s evaluation of the threat to Erbil and Baghdad is more ambiguous. Baghdad, for one, has been seen as a potential IS target for several months, but the Obama administration has never blinked. Its calculations only seemed to change after IS started to threaten Erbil and, reportedly, a Kurdish military unit with U.S. advisors deployed in the vicinity.

The apparent special treatment of the Kurdish north reflects several longstanding U.S. interests there, including commercial and oil concerns. The Kurds also enjoy the support of many U.S. senators, who see them as a bulwark of support for the United States. It would also have been hard for Obama to overlook ExxonMobil’s decision to evacuate the area days before he went public with his decision to launch air strikes. Finally, the presence of Christian minorities in and around the Kurdish region may also have played a role. Although Obama mentioned the threat to Christian minorities in the north only in passing, their plight had recently become a rallying cry for French representatives at the United Nations. The concern reflects longstanding cultural ties between Iraqi Christians and France (in fact, those ties were once used to justify French claims on Mosul in World War I). Several members of congress, many of whom regularly argue on behalf of Iraqi Christians, also took up the call.

To understand why, by contrast, the Obama administration was long unfazed by the possibility of the fall of Baghdad, one must look to the formation of the first Nouri al-Maliki government in June 2006, when a considerable segment of U.S. policymakers and lobbyists were tied in knots over what they called the issue of “Sunni inclusion” in the Iraqi state. At best, their efforts amounted to lobbying for fairer de-Baathification arrangements, tentative improvement of judicial procedures, and better financing of the Sunni tribesmen that back the Iraqi government. However, at times, “Sunni inclusion” also involved a rather uncritical embrace of just about any force willing to challenge Maliki in the name of Sunnism. All too often, the Maliki government was urged to agree to “Sunni demands” that were, in reality, quite radical, including the reshaping of the administrative geography of Iraq along sectarian lines. 

For his part, Obama even named hesitance of supporting Maliki as a reason for not intervening closer to Baghdad in a recent interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman. “We did not just start taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as [ISIS] came in was because that would have taken the pressure off of al-Maliki” and encouraged Maliki and other Shiites to think: “‘We don’t actually have to make compromises.’”

U.S. policymakers failed to see how their rush to accommodate ethno-sectarian demands actually deepened sectarianism and created the space for radical groups to thrive. Ad hoc U.S. bombings now are unlikely to change much. Obama’s public remarks have hinted that more comprehensive U.S. military assistance -- potentially involving ground forces -- could follow the campaign once Iraq has formed a government that Washington certifies as more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. But the United States and Iraq have tried throwing lots of factions together before, without much luck. After all, previous attempts simply led to temporary truces between leaders like Maliki, who has become an autocrat, and Masud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, who has concentrated nearly as much power in his own hands as Maliki, but has had more success courting Western opinion. The bigger issue of the governance of the Iraqi state was left unaddressed in these elite concords of the past as well.

Obama declares that he does not want to be dragged into another Iraq war. But it is not like this war came from nowhere. It is, in fact, the same one that he tried to finish in 2010–11 by papering over glaring holes in the Iraqi government and then abruptly leaving. Iraq wasn’t fixed then, and probably won’t be until the United States fundamentally rethinks its policies, particularly how to balance perceived sectarian interests with broader national agendas in Iraq. 

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