The Drudge headline says, "Obama Bombs Iraq." The Washington Examiner headline says, "U.S. military aircraft conducts first airstrike in Iraq." The Washington Post headline says, "U.S. launches airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq."
All are entirely accurate, but what is perhaps most notable about President Obama's rationale for action, laid out in a brief address to the nation Thursday night, is how precisely limited the president's directive is. Some Republicans are calling for Obama to take broad and decisive action in Iraq. This is most definitely not it.
In the president's first sentence Wednesday night, he stressed that he was authorizing two, and only two, actions. One is "targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel," and the other is "a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water." That is it.
On the first goal, Obama explained that ISIS fighters have recently "neared the city of Erbil, where American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces." Obama said he has directed the Pentagon to hit ISIS convoys moving toward Erbil and to "take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq" — which means either in Erbil or in Baghdad, where the U.S. has placed teams of advisors. Beyond that, Obama pledged to help the Kurds fight against ISIS, but without the participation of U.S. forces.
After the president's speech, a senior administration official reiterated the tight limits on the first directive. "This is focused on the protection of our personnel and facilities," the official said. "Given the strategic nature of Erbil and Baghdad, clearly we would be concerned about and prepared to take action if we saw ISIL advances that put our facilities at risk."
So that is it: Obama's directive is not to destroy, or even weaken, ISIS. It is not to turn the tide in Iraq. It is not to protect Christians or other persecuted minorities. It is, quite narrowly, to protect American forces and facilities in two key areas.
Obama's second goal is equally limited: to offer relief and some protection to members of the Yazidi sect who, faced with murderous ISIS aggression, have fled to a mountaintop in northern Iraq, where they are now under siege and without food or water. While Obama, in his speech, said that ISIS has been "especially barbaric towards religious minorities, including Christian and Yazidis," he made clear that his directive concerns the specific plight of the Yazidis at this specific moment. "At the request of the Iraqi government, we've begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain," he said.
In the conference call later, the senior administration official emphasized again that the president's action is directed just toward the Yazidis. Obama's order, the official explained, "had two very narrow and specific objectives: One, the protection of U.S. personnel and facilities; and two, alleviating the huge humanitarian crisis faced by the Yazidi people."
"This was not an authorization of a broad-based counterterrorism campaign against ISIL," the official added.
Obama spent a significant part of his address explaining his determination that the U.S. not be drawn back in to a conflict in Iraq. The sharp limits he put on the latest action show just how serious he is about that.