Obama’s “Defensive” Airstrikes in Iraq

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.


While Al Qaeda took over more and more of Iraq, Obama spent months doing nothing. The United States was warned, but Obama stuck to the same line that it was Iraq’s problem.

Unfortunately Al Qaeda taking over large parts of two countries, seizing sizable amounts of military equipment and even WMDs, is our problem.

September 11 should have made that glaringly obvious.

Obama Inc. responded to criticism by suggesting that Congress abolish approval for military action in Iraq, which is probably the strangest political request from the White House ever. Congress refused to play since it was obvious that Obama wanted to blame Congress for his own inaction.

Now Obama has approved two narrow sets of air strikes. The generous interpretation of his statement is that the US will carry out air strikes on ISIS if it advances on Baghdad or Erbil… and it may carry out air strikes to help the Iraqi Army rescue the trapped Yazidis.

The rationale for the former is that the air strikes will be in defense of US personnel and facilities that would be threatened by an ISIS advance on Baghdad or Erbil. Obviously the US could pull out so the excuse is a bit thin, but in practice it means that the air strikes will be used to maintain a status quo.

In reality it won’t. Obviously.

Air strikes may help the Kurds if they actually stand and fight. The Iraqi Army doesn’t currently have a track record of doing that. Relying on it to rescue the Yazidis is chancy.

Obama’s doctrine of largely defensive and reactive air strikes in Iraq drags the US in, without accomplishing much of anything. That’s rather typical of Obama’s military strategies. It might help rescue the Yazidis and Christians, but it’s unclear where they will go next if ISIS continues advancing. And there are Christians and Yazidis who weren’t able to escape.

The air strikes won’t intimidate ISIS which now has a chance to directly humiliate America by continuing its advance. If it can do that, then things will get ugly.

Worse still, Obama’s reactive strikes, complete with conditions, are a repetition of his Afghanistan policy which let the enemy set the terms while telling them exactly what we would do.

ISIS has shown itself to be more adaptive and cleverer than the Taliban which makes them more dangerous.

The question looming over all this is why there is so much hesitation about hitting Al Qaeda in Iraq. We regularly target Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen and Pakistan. We have a long history of fighting ISIS in its earlier incarnation.

The only way to push it back is by going on the offensive and taking out some of their leaders and assets. That doesn’t mean putting troops on the ground.

Right now the Sunni coalition has formed around ISIS (despite all the media chatter about how extreme and isolated they are within Islam). That coalition would wobble a lot harder if ISIS were dragging them into a war with American air power.

Obama instead has authorized air strikes under two restrictive conditions, one of them has a very short lifespan, and the other has the US Air Force playing defense to protect Baghdad and Erbil.

It’s a holding pattern that doesn’t make much sense.