A little more than 24 hours after wrapping up an international summit at the Institute of Peace in Washington last week, President Obama went to war.
"My fellow Americans, the world is confronted by many challenges," Mr. Obama said in a defensive tone as he announced the renewal of hostilities in Iraq.
As with any military action, analysts say Mr. Obama's decision to authorize airstrikes against a powerful Islamist insurgency in northern Iraq carries political risks. It's especially dicey for a president who has tried to emphasize diplomacy first and who used as a major selling point in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections his opposition to the Iraq war and his vow to end U.S. military involvement there.
If the limited mission fails to halt the militants' momentum, it could further erode the dwindling public confidence in Mr. Obama's handling of foreign policy. And if the U.S. mission creeps into a wider conflict against the Islamic State, it could undermine Mr. Obama's standing among his Democratic base as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president who ends military engagements.
"We want to remind President Obama and members of Congress that, after more than a decade of war, Americans supported you to end our role in the war in Iraq, not restart it," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a million-member grass-roots organization for progressives.
Democrats in Congress mainly applauded the president for his decision or held their tongues, but even some of Mr. Obama's closest liberal allies voiced concerns about his move.
"Escalating it is not in the cards. Neither the American people nor Congress are in the business of wanting to escalate this conflict beyond where it is today. I think the president's made it clear this is a limited strike," Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said Sunday on "Meet the Press." "To go beyond is really going to be a challenge."
Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, said Friday he shares "New Mexicans' weariness about any expansion of U.S. involvement in Iraq and strongly oppose putting boots on the ground."
"I have serious concerns for mission creep, which is why it's important that the president clearly articulate to Congress what our goal is," Mr. Heinrich said.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said on "Fox News Sunday" that America must be careful not to be become the Iraqis' air force.
"We are not going to get in the middle of a civil war and use American military where it should be Iraqis taking care of their own needs," he said.
While Democrats urged the president not to get America's military even more involved in the crisis, Republicans criticized the president for not taking strong enough action when America's national security is at risk.
"For the president to say we're doing airstrikes, [but] we're not doing anything else, we're not going to use American combat troops, we're not going to do this, we're not going to do that — what kind of leadership is that?" Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, said Sunday on "Meet the Press." "You never let the enemy know what you're going to do."
The president and his top aides are showing they're wary of angering the left in this election year, emphasizing that the military action will be "very limited in scope," as one senior administration official said.
Mr. Obama is trying to build support for the mission, in part, by calling attention to a humanitarian effort to stop IS from carrying out the extermination of displaced ethnic minorities in Iraq who are trapped on a mountain.
"We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide," Mr. Obama said. "These terrorists have been especially barbaric toward religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, a small and ancient religious sect."
Iraqi Christians have been pleading with the administration to take action against IS. But some progressives are concerned that humanitarian aid will lead to an open-ended military commitment.
"The world is watching, and genocide must not be used as a fig leaf by war hawks to expand U.S. military involvement throughout the region," Mr. Chamberlain said.
But Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said that the president's plan to fix the humanitarian crisis is not a coherent strategy for the growing problem.
"The president made it clear this was to avert the humanitarian crisis and to protect American military personnel," Mr. McCain said on CNN's "State of the Union." "That's not a strategy; that's not a policy. That is simply a very narrow and focused approach to a problem that is metastasizing as we speak."
Other critics on the right say the president is already indulging his base by ordering a small, narrow military effort that fails to encompass a strategy for defeating IS.
"Every White House effort is small because it's not part of a larger strategy to defeat the enemy," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "As to how it plays, that's up to the president. He has no desire to persuade and, as a result, will not."
Some Democrats are waiting to see whether Iraqis can form a new central government that is more inclusive, saying it should be a condition of U.S. military aid. Administration officials say they are hopeful that a new government will be formed, without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, within days.
"I support President Obama's decision to send humanitarian and military aid," said Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat. "Ultimately, there is no substitute for political accommodation between all elements of Iraqi society to join together and expel the [IS] extremists from their country. In the meantime, though, while I agree with the president that American ground troops should not return to Iraq, we must assist the Iraqis in their efforts to stop militant gains and prevent humanitarian catastrophe."
Whatever the political fallout, observers say the president's predicament is a far cry from the reassurances he gave Americans in December 2011, when he said the U.S. was leaving Iraq in a good position for the future.
"Iraq's future will be in the hands of its people," Mr. Obama said at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as he withdrew the last of the U.S. troops from Iraq. "America's war in Iraq will be over. Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We're building a new partnership between our nations."
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