August 8

We’ve now begun some very limited military action in Iraq, with airstrikes hitting artillery positions of the Islamic State (IS), combined with airdrops of food and water to the group of Yazidis stranded on a mountaintop where they fled from IS. Naturally, the Obama administration’s opponents are saying it isn’t enough.

In a certain sense, they’re right. Unless we significantly scale up our military involvement there, what we do is unlikely to have a dramatic, lasting effect on IS. The point seems to be to find some way to help without putting American personnel at risk or sucking us back into Iraq in a major way (like Michael Corleone, every time Obama thinks he’s out of that benighted place, they pull him back in). This is Obama’s military doctrine in action. It won’t bring us glorious military victories, but it also won’t bring us military disasters.

When he ran for president, Obama promised a new approach to military involvement overseas, one defined by limited actions with clear objectives and exit strategies. It was to be a clean break with the Bush doctrine that had given us the debacle of the Iraq War: no grand military ambitions, no open-ended conflicts, no naïve dreams of remaking countries half a world away.

Of necessity, that means American military action is reactive. Instead of looking around for someone to invade, this administration has tried to help tamp down conflicts when they occur, and use force only when there seems no other option — and when it looks like it might actually accomplish something, and not create more problems than it solves.

But even though it’s designed to avoid huge disasters, this approach carries its own risks, particularly when we confront situations like the one in Iraq where there are few good options. We can take some action to keep IS out of the Kurdish north, but that might leave them just as strong, with their maniacal fundamentalism still threatening the entire region. IS is a truly ghastly bunch, with ambitions that seem unlimited. Obama said he was acting “to prevent a potential act of genocide.” What if it happens anyway, and we could have done more?

On the other hand, we could get sucked bit by bit into a larger military involvement to help the fragile Iraqi government deal with this very real threat, and find ourselves back with a significant presence in Iraq — precisely the situation few Americans, not least the President, want. And for all we know that could produce new problems, both the kind we can anticipate and the kind we can’t.

So a cautious approach contains no guarantees, and no one is likely to find it particularly satisfying. And this may ultimately be the point: When your doctrine is built in part on the idea that some problems have no good solutions, and you have to pick the least base one, there will inevitably be situations where even the best outcome doesn’t look anything like success.

Whether or not the public will accept this remains to be seen. But we do know that Republicans are not prepared to accept it. Many of them plainly hunger for glorious military crusades, where we sweep in with all those fancy toys we spend hundreds of billions on every year, and save the day to the cheers of the oppressed populace. This was the spirit that animated the Bush years, when the same people now criticizing Obama were convinced that we’d be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq, then quickly set up a thriving and peaceful state that would spread the light of democracy throughout the region.

The fact that they were so spectacularly wrong about that, and the result was so much death and chaos, doesn’t seem to have diminished their desire for that glory, nor their faith in the ability of American military power to solve problems anywhere and everywhere. Whatever course Obama chooses, in this and every conflict, their position is always the same: we need more. More force, more bombing, more toughness is always the answer. Part of this is just reflexive opposition to this president; if Obama announced tomorrow that he was going to nuke the moon, they’d call him weak for not attacking the sun. But it also reflects a desire that was there during the last Republican presidency and will be there in the next one.

It’s related to the “American exceptionalism” conservatives talk about so rapturously, not only that we’re the strongest and the richest but the best, the world’s most noble people whom God himself has granted dominion over the earth (I exaggerate only slightly). Within this belief lies the conviction that there is almost nothing we can’t do, and nothing our military can’t do.

Barack Obama doesn’t believe that. He knows there are actually many things we can’t do, and the Iraq War is all the proof you need. By shaping his foreign policy around that reality, he has removed from it the potential for glory. “We did what we could, and stopped things from getting worse” isn’t the kind of result you hold a parade to celebrate. But if in the end we can say that, it might be enough.