Every time Barack Obama thinks he has succeeded in establishing restraint as the central doctrine of his foreign policy, a new outburst of chaos in the Middle East draws him back in. In 2011, fears that Libya’s Moammar Kadafi would massacre opponents led the United States into an air war. In 2013, Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians almost drew Obama into another. Now it’s Iraq, where the president thought he had disentangled the United States, only to see a new threat arise in the form of the terrorist army of the Islamic State.
Last week, when Obama first announced that he had ordered military action against the Islamists, his language was all about limits. These were “targeted airstrikes,” he said, with carefully limited goals: protecting American personnel in Kurdistan and rescuing terrified displaced Iraqis on Mt. Sinjar.
But it didn’t take long for the mission to grow. By the weekend, Obama was already talking about “a broader strategy in Iraq,” one that would help a new, improved government in Baghdad repel the fighters of the Islamic State entirely.