In Iraq, a test of Obama's use of force doctrine

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In Iraq, a test of Obama's use of force doctrine
IDLIB, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Syrians inspect the rubble of destroyed houses following the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on a residential area in Idlib, Syria on September 23, 2014. (Photo by Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 23: A Syrian youth walks past the wreckage of a vehicle following the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on a residential area in Idlib, Syria on September 23, 2014. (Photo by Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Syrians collect remains from the rubble of a destroyed house following the U.S.-led coalition's airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on a residential area in Idlib, Syria on September 23, 2014. (Photo by Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Anti-war activists hold placards during a rally denouncing US' air strike on Syria and Iraq, near the US embassy in Seoul on September 15, 2014. 'All bases are covered' in a US-led multinational coalition against the Islamic State, John Kerry said, as Washington rallies diplomatic and public support to smash the jihadists. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 1: Locals celebrate after Iraqi forces have freed the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on September 1, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 1: A Shiite militant is seen after Iraqi forces have freed the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on September 1, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KHAZIR FRONTLINE, KRG, IRAQ - 2014/08/26: Candid portrait of a young Peshmerga soldier at the Kazhir Frontline. Khazir refugee camp is located outside Kalak, a town halfway on the road between Erbil and Mosul. It was overrun by ISIS militants on the 7th of August following an unprecedented push of the Caliphate into Kurdish territory. Its thousands of Iraqi and Arab refugees were forced to flee again as the now deserted camp has become the new frontline between the Peshmerga and ISIS. It is the theatre of frequent U.S. airstrikes that have helped halt the ISIS advance into a stalemate situation. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: An Iraqi armed soldier flashes victory sign after Iraqi forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on August 31, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Stringer - Anadolu Agency)
KHAZIR FRONTLINE, KRG, IRAQ - 2014/08/26: A Peshmerga soldier makes a victory sign on top of a bunker at the Khazir Frontline. Khazir refugee camp is located outside Kalak, a town halfway on the road between Erbil and Mosul. It was overrun by ISIS militants on the 7th of August following an unprecedented push of the Caliphate into Kurdish territory. Its thousands of Iraqi and Arab refugees were forced to flee again as the now deserted camp has become the new frontline between the Peshmerga and ISIS. It is the theatre of frequent U.S. airstrikes that have helped halt the ISIS advance into a stalemate situation. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KHAZIR FRONTLINE, KRG, IRAQ - 2014/08/26: Overview of the Kazhir Frontline where a Russian-made T55 tank is positioned facing toward ISIS lines, a few kilometers away. Khazir refugee camp is located outside Kalak, a town halfway on the road between Erbil and Mosul. It was overrun by ISIS militants on the 7th of August following an unprecedented push of the Caliphate into Kurdish territory. Its thousands of Iraqi and Arab refugees were forced to flee again as the now deserted camp has become the new frontline between the Peshmerga and ISIS. It is the theatre of frequent U.S. airstrikes that have helped halt the ISIS advance into a stalemate situation. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KHAZIR FRONTLINE, KRG, IRAQ - 2014/08/26: An American Humvee is potionned on the Khazir Frontline. It was captured from ISIS militants by Peshmerga soldiers. Khazir refugee camp is located outside Kalak, a town halfway on the road between Erbil and Mosul. It was overrun by ISIS militants on the 7th of August following an unprecedented push of the Caliphate into Kurdish territory. Its thousands of Iraqi and Arab refugees were forced to flee again as the now deserted camp has become the new frontline between the Peshmerga and ISIS. It is the theatre of frequent U.S. airstrikes that have helped halt the ISIS advance into a stalemate situation. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: The Hezbollah flag waving after Iraqi forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on August 31, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Stringer - Anadolu Agency)
SALADIN, IRAQ - AUGUST 31: Iraqi armed forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on August 31, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SALADIN, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 1: A Shiite militant makes victory sign as he stands guard after Iraqi forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on September1, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - JUNE 04: Syrians inspect a building collapsed in an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the opposition controlled Al-Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on June 04, 2014. More than 100,000 people have been killed during the ongoing three-year conflict in Syria, which has also internally displaced more than 6.5 million people, according to the U.N. Over two million Syrians are now registered as refugees in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. (Photo by Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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By JULIE PACE
AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In making the case for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, President Barack Obama is drawing on the doctrine involving the use of American force that he outlined less than three months ago, when it seemed he was trying to avoid potential U.S. military action anywhere.

In a late May speech at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama said he would use military force under two scenarios: a direct threat against Americans or U.S. interests, and a humanitarian crisis on a scale that he said would "stir the conscience."

On Thursday night, when Obama announced that he had authorized airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops in Iraq, he argued that both conditions were being met.

"When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action," Obama said. "And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action."

Two days later, he suggested the U.S. engagement in Iraq will go on for some time.

"This is going to be a long-term project," Obama said of achieving the political climate in Iraq that its leaders need to counter terrorist threats.

U.S. military jets have conducted several airstrikes on militant targets near Iraq's Kurdish capital of Irbil, home to a U.S. consulate and about three dozen American military trainers.

The military also has undertaken two airdrops of food and water for Iraqis under siege from the Islamic State group, and Obama has authorized strikes if needed to protect the civilians. On Saturday, U.S. jet fighters and drones conducted four airstrikes on Islamic State forces that were firing on civilians taking shelter in the Sinjar mountains, officials said.

The deteriorating situation appears to fall within the parameters for military action Obama outlined. Yet the shift from a theoretical argument about using force to actually doing just that will test the scope and application of Obama's policy.

Already Obama is facing the question of why Iraq's besieged religious minorities are worthy of U.S. military support, but not those in the civil war in Syria, where 170,000 people have died.

The same question could apply to the violence in the Central African Republic or the Congo.

Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said that even though he welcomed Obama's decision in Iraq, it was inevitable that "those who have called for a similar humanitarian intervention in Syria will wonder why Iraq and why not Syria."

Obama's advisers say there are important differences between Iraq and Syria. Officials note that Obama is undertaking military action in Iraq at the invitation of that country's government, while in Syria, U.S. intervention would aim to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Officials also say that the ties built between the U.S. and Iraq during nearly a decade of war have left the military with significant intelligence and surveillance resources that provide keen insight into the situation there. Such resources, officials say, do not exist in Syria.

"While there are lessons that can be drawn from our involvement in other places, there is no direct correlation between action in one place and action in another in terms of guiding the decisions that are made solely by the consequences for American national security," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Obama has used military force on humanitarian grounds once before. When the U.S. joined NATO allies in a bombing campaign over Libya in 2011, Obama cited the risk of an imminent massacre of civilians in Benghazi as the rationale.

Critics of the White House foreign policy say that if Obama had applied a similar doctrine to Syria, he could have averted the current crisis in Iraq. The Islamic State group that's pressing through Iraq has its roots in Syria. It strengthened amid the instability of the Syrian civil war before advancing across the border.

There has been little overt criticism of the president's decision to launch attacks aimed at protecting the American. But there are questions about the scope of the mission, which appears focused on containing the Islamic State, but not wiping out the militant group all together.

"A policy of containment will not work," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a joint statement. The lawmakers, who have been among Obama's chief foreign policy critics, called the Islamic State "inherently expansionist" and warned that "the longer we wait to act, the worse this threat will become."

The White House says it would not launch a broader campaign to help Iraq push back the militants unless the country addresses a fractured political system that U.S. officials say created the space for the Sunni extremists to take hold.

Even if Iraq can mend its politics, Obama insists he would not put American combat troops on the ground in Iraq, nor would he allow the country to be "dragged back" into a lengthy war there yet again.

"Ultimately, only Iraqis can ensure the security and stability of Iraq," he said Saturday at the White House. "The United States can't do it for them, but we can and will be partners in that effort."

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