President Obama may want to listen to candidate Obama.
As U.S. military jets bombed targets in Iraq on Friday for the first time since the American withdrawal in 2011, Obama argued in an address to the nation that the White House was taking military action to prevent "genocide" (emphasis ours):
In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives. And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs. They're without food, they're without water. People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide. So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.
I've said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there's a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help -- in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That's what we're doing on that mountain.
But almost exactly seven years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama told the Associated Press that, under his administration, genocide would be no justification for continued military action in Iraq:
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.
"Well, look, if that's the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven't done," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea," he said.
Does this qualify as a "flip-flop?" Not exactly. A lot can happen in seven years, and Iraq is far from the same country. "The U.S. Army is long gone, and taking action there doesn't prolong an ongoing occupation," notes TIME's Michael Crowely. "Nor is Obama ordering anything like a reinvasion of the country. He has authorized — though not yet specifically ordered — only limited strikes against ISIS fighters in the region. 'We are not launching a sustained US campaign against [ISIS] here' a senior Administration official told reporters Thursday night."
Still, the prospect of a military campaign won't sit well with the American public: a June 2014 Gallup poll notes that 61% of Americans approve of Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the country, and 54% oppose the U.S. taking any military action to combat the Islamic State militants who are sweeping through the country.
The president is in a tough spot. Even before the current crises Iraq and the Gaza Strip burst into world stage, conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere have tested the limits of a president and country wary of becoming entangled in another foreign conflict. And with the legacy of George W. Bush's campaign in Iraq hanging over his head, Obama should chose his words carefully.