WASHINGTON — For much of the summer, President Barack Obama had watched with alarm as a brutal, al-Qaida-linked insurgency seized more and more territory in northern Iraq. But it wasn’t until Thursday, when Obama learned that genocide could be imminent, that the president decided the U.S. military had to act.
The vivid reports streaming into the Situation Room that morning from U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials were unsettling, to say the least: Stories of mass executions, women being enslaved as child brides, members of a small religious group trapped on a mountain and potentially dying of thirst. The situation was falling apart — fast.
Then the president, for the first time, was given an assessment that thrust the crisis into an entirely new category.
As one top official put it: “I had not heard the word ‘genocide’ used in the Situation Room before.”
By the time 90-minute meeting ended, it was clear Obama planned to order humanitarian aid to be airdropped to the Yazidis, a religious minority being targeted by the Islamic State militant group. But advisers were still unsure whether Obama would go one step further: airstrikes in Iraq, just three years after the U.S. pulled out from a war that Obama never liked.
As a fast-growing Sunni rebellion overran major Iraqi cities in early June, Obama began weighing his options. A U.S. aircraft carrier was ordered into the Persian Gulf, and Obama began dispatching hundreds of special forces to advise Iraqis and protect U.S. personnel.
On one point, Obama was firm: No ground troops would return to Iraq. Yet the prospect of airstrikes hung in the air like an unpleasant smell — Obama was clearly reluctant to take that step, but it could prove critical to preventing a security collapse in Iraq.
As the thermometer climbed in July, temperatures were also rising in Washington, where some lawmakers were demanding immediate drone strikes while others were urging the opposite. A top senator threatened to block arms sales to Iraq, and House lawmakers easily passed a resolution to bar Obama from sending forces into Iraq long-term without their go-ahead.
Pentagon leaders were reviewing what assistance might help Iraq’s beleaguered military, while diplomats pressed Iraqi leaders for a political transition that would enfranchise Sunnis and Kurds.
Wednesday was a major tipping point. Obama was engrossed in three days of meeting with dozens of African presidents he’d invited to Washington. But roughly 6,000 miles away, the Yazidis were in trouble, having fled to the mountains to escape the extremists.
With Obama at the summit, his team met throughout the day at the White House, where they learned that the Iraqis had tried — and failed — to resupply the Yazidis, who were in dire need of food and water.
The Kurds, America’s closest allies in Iraq, had sought to hold off the extremists. But on Wednesday, the Kurdish militia started falling back, moving precipitously away from Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam as they sought to consolidate their forces to protect Irbil.
Eventually, insurgents took the dam. If fully breached, the dam could flood major swaths of land, endangering the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, joined Obama for the limo ride back to the White House, where Obama said he knew the Yazidis’ humanitarian crisis must be addressed. Obama had plans to join the first lady at an Italian restaurant, but the Oval Office meeting dragged on. Dinner would have to wait.
By Thursday morning, things had only gotten worse. People were fleeing Irbil. Obama made clear he was inclined to approve military action, officials said, but held off on the final decision as he left to sign a veterans bill at a nearby army base. The officials discussed Obama’s decision-making on the condition they not be identified.
Upon his return, Obama met for two hours with his team in the Situation Room, where Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, both abroad, were linked by videoconference. Obama announced he was authorizing two missions: airdrops for the Yazidis, and military strikes in the event Americans were in danger.
As dusk fell in Washington, cable news and Twitter were abuzz with reports about U.S. military action in Iraq. Though many were false, the White House didn’t comment, fearing it could jeopardize the first humanitarian drop, which was underway under the cover of night.
Just after 9 p.m., reporters were hastily summoned to the State Dining Room, where a stoic Obama spoke to the nation.
“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,” Obama said.