Could Iraq become Obama's war?

A child who is fleeing the violence in Kurdistan Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A child fleeing the violence

President Obama once said the US should not be fighting a war in Iraq. Now he has approved air strikes, trying to protect Americans and help minorities under threat from Sunni militants. So will the president find himself entangled in Iraq?

The New York Times' Peter Baker says Mr Obama did not want this war - but seems to feel he has no choice. "Hoping to end the war in Iraq, Mr Obama became the fourth president in a row to order military action in that graveyard of American ambition," writes Baker.

In the Wall Street Journal journalists Carol Lee and Felicia Schwartz explain that Mr Obama had once said he would scale back the role of the US in Iraq. He ran his presidential campaign on that promise.

But things have changed.

"The situation on the ground became untenable in recent days," write Lee and Schwartz, "pushing Mr. Obama to authorise air strikes".

Writing in Commentary Magazine, John Podhoretz says Mr Obama made a mistake when he said the US would pull back from Iraq. Former president George W Bush had created a situation in which Iraq was "on its way to a stable future", wrote Mr Podhoretz.

Unfortunately Mr Obama "assumed we had lost in Iraq", says Mr Podhoretz. Today Mr Obama is forced to reckon with his mistake. "And so we come full circle," writes Mr Podhoretz - with the US again playing a military role there.

Yale University's Emma Sky, who once served an adviser to Gen Raymond Odierno, the commanding general of US forces in Iraq, says Mr. Obama is doing the right thing.

"It was the morally correct intervention of the United States in 1991 to impose a no-fly zone and to drop humanitarian supplies that prevented Saddam's forces from massacring Kurds," she writes in the New York Times.

Americans also need to help those who are in danger in Iraq, she says.

Her view is shared by editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal. "His decision to withdraw all US troops in 2011 was a strategic and increasingly a moral disaster," they say.

"The president - which is to say the US - bears responsibility now for the humanitarian catastrophe occurring in Iraq, just as it did for the mass flight of Vietnam's boat people, some two million, after the Communist triumph in the 1970s."

Some say the president's decision is long overdue.

"Finally", writes a blogger for the Lonely Conservative, Mr Obama has authorised "limited airstrikes in Iraq against the murderous Islamic terrorists".

Not everyone agrees, however, that Mr Obama should continue the fight Mr Bush started.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Harvard's Stephen Walt says: "Every time the US touches the Middle East, it makes things worse. It's time to walk away and not look back."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Iraqi Christians, including these in a church courtyard after leaving Erbil, are trying to escape from militants

His view is summarised in the headline of his column: "Let it bleed."

Mr Obama is certainly not the first president who has faced tough choices - or reversed an earlier position. Indeed lesons have emerged over time.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, co-author of The Nixon Tapes, says audiotapes recorded at the White House under President Nixon reveal important truths about foreign policy.

"I found listening to all these tapes that you do have to a have a sense of human rights - that democracy has to represent some kind of goodness," Brinkley tells the BBC.

Brinkley says: "Otherwise when you listen to what Nixon's trying to do, it's just, 'Bomb these people. Who cares how many dead. We'll achieve this.' It's very cold and callous."

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Media captionBrinkley describes President Nixon as a 'diabolical pragmatist'

In contrast Mr Obama has tried to make moral decisions regarding foreign policy. He has also been willing at times to admit he has to change course.

While finding himself under fire from some quarters for not acting sooner, some Americans seem to appreciate his "willingness to grapple with moral complexity", wrote Ross Douthat last year in the New York Times.

But sometimes the decisions - even with a moral compass - are wrenching. Iraq is a test of the president's ability to navigate this terrain, and the story is now unfolding.