After years of resisting the pull of more Mideast conflicts, President Barack Obama has sent the military back into action in Iraq, where he once accused his predecessor of waging a "dumb war."
US planes yesterday bombed Islamic militants who were towing artillery outside Irbil near US personnel, the Pentagon said.
The aggressive insurgency threatens to undermine Obama's legacy as the commander in chief who ended a long and unpopular war in which nearly 4,500 American troops died.
It also raises fresh questions about whether Obama's desire to end the war clouded his assessment of the risks of fully withdrawing US troops, as well as his judgment about the threat posed by the extremists.
Obama insisted the US was not moving toward a protracted conflict.
"I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq," he said late Thursday.
The chief rationale for Obama's authorization for military strikes in Iraq was to protect American forces serving in Irbil. They include some of the forces the president sent in this summer to help train and assist Iraq's struggling security forces.
In trying to help Iraq protect civilians, Obama said the US has a responsibility to stop imminent massacres. It's an echo of the argument he used when the US joined Nato's bombing campaign in Libya in 2010.
Obama has not followed the same path in Syria's civil war, where more than 170,000 people have died.
As recently as January, Obama was dismissive of the al-Qaeda breakaway Islamic militants. In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, he said comparing the group to the terrorist network established by Osama bin Laden was like comparing a junior varsity basketball team to an NBA squad.
Obama critics have benn questioning about his ability to influence world events, from Russia's provocations in Ukraine to the fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Obama long has been skeptical about the effectiveness of military action, and he made clear that US airpower would not solve Iraq's problems. "There's no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq," he said.
But White House opponents say the president should have pushed harder for a solution before withdrawing completely from Iraq in order to avoid the type of situation now unfolding.