It would be wrong to view President Barack Obama’s decision to order airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and to give weapons to Kurdish fighters as a continuation of the war in Iraq. It is more accurate to see it as a mission to prevent a repetition of the war in Afghanistan. We have a chance to stop the Islamic State before it creates a sanctuary in Iraq and Syria that it could use to strike the United States, just as al-Qaida used its sanctuary in Afghanistan to kill thousands of Americans on Sept. 11, 2001. That, to his credit, is what the president has begun to do.
Obama gave two very good, moral, short-term reasons when he authorized the airstrikes on Thursday: to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe for Yazidis and Christians and to protect Americans in Kurdistan and elsewhere in Iraq. Then, on Saturday, the president clarified the larger, longer-term goals of this action.
First, it will not be time limited. Obama has steadfastly refused to set a deadline for the United States’ engagement in the fight against the Islamic State. Second, he said, “There’s going to be a counterterrorism element” of our activities against the Islamic State. On Monday, the president added that the United States is “ready to work with other countries in the region to deal with the humanitarian crisis and counterterrorism challenge in Iraq.” In other words, even after we successfully provide protection and relief to threatened Yazidis, Christians and Americans, a longer-term fight must be waged.
The shockingly rapid and violent spread of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, its declaration of an extremist Islamist caliphate and the stream of explicit threats it has made against the United States demonstrate that it is a clear and present danger to us and our allies. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson have each expressed urgent concern about the risk that the Islamic State will attempt terrorist attacks against our homeland, and those attacks could be carried out by Americans who are fighting with the group.
That is why the leadership the president has shown in the past week is so important. Of course, what happens in the months ahead will be determinative. The Iraqi government must unify and reform itself under its new leaders. U.S. airstrikes must continue. The United States and its allies must help to better train and equip Kurdish and Iraqi troops and our unparalleled counterterrorism capabilities must be brought fully into the fight. The president has repeatedly said that he will not put U.S. combat troops on the ground in the Middle East. But if they get specialized assistance from us and our allies, Kurdish and Iraqi ground troops are capable of defeating the Islamic State.
In a world ablaze with conflict and bloodshed, the threats we face from violent Islamist extremism remain the most dangerous. If built upon, the decisions that Obama made during the past week will enable us to do as much damage to the Islamic State as we have done to core al-Qaida since 2001.
Joseph I. Lieberman, an Independent who represented Connecticut in the Senate from 1989 to 2013, is co-chairman of the American Internationalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
Special to The Washington Post