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Obama, the very reluctant warrior

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
updated 3:44 PM EDT, Fri August 8, 2014
Iraqi Shiite militiamen aim their weapons during clashes with ISIS militants in Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraq, on Sunday, September 28. Some of the world's top diplomats <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/15/world/meast/isis-threat/'>have pledged support for Iraq</a>, including military assistance, in its fight against ISIS militants. ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq. Iraqi Shiite militiamen aim their weapons during clashes with ISIS militants in Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraq, on Sunday, September 28. Some of the world's top diplomats have pledged support for Iraq, including military assistance, in its fight against ISIS militants. ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: President Obama never wanted to order more action in Iraq
  • She says the president seemed to focus most on what he didn't want to do
  • Does a policy of avoiding trouble only invite more trouble?
  • Borger: Obama made the right call but needs to explain more of his thinking

(CNN) -- When President Obama spoke to the nation about military action in Iraq, it was hard to directly catch his eye.

He moved side to side, reading the prompter, as he often does, but hardly ever facing the camera directly. It was a "My Fellow Americans" moment, only he didn't really look us in the eye. Maybe it's because he was saying something he really never wanted to say: that he had ordered airstrikes in Iraq.

No one should argue with the decision. Part of it was to protect American personnel. It was to prevent genocide on a faraway mountaintop and drop food and water to the thousands stranded and cornered. It was to tell the world clearly that this won't be tolerated by the United States. And for that, the President should be applauded.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

But it was obvious, as the President's head weaved side-to-side, that there was much more baggage weighing on this decision. Eight paragraphs into the speech, the President felt the need to explain to the public that this isn't a slippery slope to another lengthy involvement. "I ran for office in part to end our war in Iraq," he said. "As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."

It was as if he was reassuring himself as much as the American public. Time and time again, this President has been drawn into decisions that threaten to undermine his chief foreign policy narrative: killing Osama Bin Laden, ending two unpopular wars.

Sen. Graham: Time is now to act in Iraq
Obama's promise: No combat troops
Kerry: ISIS showing signs of 'genocide'

When the Islamic radicals were gaining strength in early summer, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham described the President as "stubborn-headed, delusional, detached." He argued at that time that the President should "put air power into the game." He went to the White House and told the President as much.

But the President waited. The U.S. wanted a new Iraqi government in place -- and hopefully Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gone -- before moving on ISIS. So he sent some noncombat special forces troops to get some eyes on the situation on the ground, but declined to use American air power at that time. But now he's up against the wall, and he's acting, which is the right thing to do.

Still, no matter how limited -- and no matter how commendable -- this decision, the obvious questions now arise: Even though this mission is carefully, and narrowly, defined, what happens if the unexpected happens and the mission escalates?

Would the U.S. turn away? Would we arm moderates, as we have refused to do elsewhere? And speaking of Syria, how does this decision apply there -- if at all?

Some argue that the problem in Syria has gotten so far past the point where a carefully targeted use of air power would have any impact. Then the question becomes: How does the United States make its humanitarian and moral decisions? In a larger sense, what are the guidelines that govern these difficult foreign policy decisions?

The President ought to talk some more to the American people about that part of his thinking. We already know his obvious rules of the game that now govern military involvement: no boots on the ground, no long-term commitments, just humanitarian efforts. The pillar for his foreign policy seems to be: Stay out of trouble. But the natural question to then ask is whether this credo doesn't just generate more trouble over time.

At this point, it's hard to know. We all agree that not many of us want to be "dragged," as the President put it, into fighting another war in Iraq. We all understand the President's sense about the limits of American involvement in military conflict. So we are all clear on what he won't do. We're still not sure about what he will do -- and maybe neither is he.

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