On Thursday night, President Obama announced that he has authorized airstrikes “if necessary” for “two missions” in Iraq (full text of the President’s statement).

Mission 1: Kurdish capital of Erbil

Objective: “to protect our American personnel” in Erbil, including diplomats and civilians at the US consulate and American military members advising Iraqi forces.

The President stated: “To stop the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIS terrorist convoys should they move toward the city.”

Mission 2: Mount Sinjar

Objective: “to prevent a potential act of genocide” against religious minorities (e.g., Yezidis) trapped on the remote mountaintop.

In addition to invoking the term “genocide,” the President stated: “I’ve … authorized targeted airstrikes, if necessary, to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there.”

How limited?

As former US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill told the Wall Street Journal, “Anytime you use force, you have to be able to answer the question ‘and then what?”

In his brief address, the President referred five times to “targeted” or “limited” strikes. And, reiterating earlier promises, he described an upper limit to the U.S. military commitment: “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.  And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.”

But why should we expect such military actions to stay limited to Americans in Erbil and religious minorities on Mount Sinjar?

On the former (Americans in Erbil), Obama also suggested that this rationale might apply to Americans elsewhere: “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad” (my emphasis added). [Update: The Washington Post reports, “A senior administration official described the airstrike authorization as ‘narrow,’ but outlined a number of broad contingencies…including a possible threat to U.S. personnel in Baghdad from possible breaches in a major dam Islamist forces seized Thursday that could flood the Iraqi capital.”]

Also, is this mission really just to protect US personnel or also to aid the Kurds? The New York Times reported that “aides said [the President’s] hand was not forced until ISIS won a series of swift and stunning victories last weekend and Wednesday night against the Kurds in the north, who have been a loyal and reliable American ally.” Similarly, Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said “he supported intervening on behalf of the Kurds, as opposed to the unpopular Baghdad government. ‘The Kurds are worth helping and defending.’”

On the second mission (protecting religious minorities on Mount Sinjar), the President outlined three criteria for such humanitarian actions: “[1] innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, [2] when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and [3] when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre.” It is unclear, in my mind, why those three criteria won’t also apply to ISIS’s genocidal efforts elsewhere in the country, and the US ability “to help avert” those massacres.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting here whether it is good or bad policy to limit the military operations. On the one hand, Senators Graham and McCain have come out in support of the President’s actions, but called them insufficient “half measures.” They might be heartened by the above analysis, which suggests a potential inability to limit the President’s rationale. On the other hand, others may be dismayed by the above analysis and concerned about a slippery slope.

Domestic legal authorization?

The President stated, “I consulted Congress on the decisions I made today, [and] we will continue to do so going forward.” We will have more coverage of this issue at Just Security. Here are a few of our prior posts that are relevant to the question of domestic authorization for military action against ISIS/humanitarian intervention:

  1. Jennifer Daskal, Ryan Goodman and Steve Vladeck, The Premature Discussion of ISIS and the 2001/2002 AUMFs (contending, in part, that the 2002 Iraq AUMF does not provide congressional authority for President to force against ISIS)
  2. Ryan Goodman, The President Has No Congressional Authorization to Use Force against ISIS in Iraq (discussing Op-ed contending that 2001 AUMF does not provide congressional authority for President to force against ISIS)
  3. Harold Hongju Koh, Syria and the Law of Humanitarian Intervention (Part I: Political Miscues and U.S. Law)