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.