[CORRECTED number of Mt. Sinjar airdrops] The Obama administration and the mainstream media can make the airstrikes in Iraq sound like a humanitarian war, a New Age operation driven not by realpolitik but by the high-minded and/or fuzzy-headed responsibility to protect. In fact, Obama is using deadly force for strategic goals, just like George Bush. The difference — and it is significant — is simply that Obama relies on airstrikes (as in Libya) and special operations (e.g. Somalia), as spelled out in his 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, rather than risking another ground war.
That brings us to Saturday, when the US opened a new humanitarian front, dropping supplies to Shia Turkomen refugees near the northern town of Amirli – and dropping bombs on the Sunni extremists threatening them. But despite the highly public emphasis on protecting displaced minorities, like the Turkomen and the Yazidis, 86 percent of US airstrikes have happened for strictly military reasons.
This afternoon, Tampa-based Central Command released some enlightening statistics on the precisely 120 airstrikes it has conducted across Iraq since August 7, when the air war began against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. CENTCOM has staged four around Amirli, plus another 13 to help defend and rescue the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar. By contrast, the Kurdish defense of their regional capital of Erbil (aka Irbil or Arbil) benefited from 23 US strikes. The joint counter-offensive by the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi central government army to retake the strategic Mosul Dam? Eighty airstrikes.
Not all airstrikes are created equal, of course, and CENTCOM is hardly releasing data on how many pounds of munitions it dropped where. There have also been humanitarian airdrops of relief supplies, but strikingly few: seven missions over Mt. Sinjar, involving a total of 25 transport sorties, and one over Amirli, involving just four cargo planes — plus armed escorts.
So despite the limited detail in the data, the overall pattern appears unmistakable: the lethal military effort far outweighs the humanitarian one. As much as the administration talks about saving lives and protecting minority rights, the real driving force behind the air campaign is a coldly military calculation about taking lives and holding territory.
That is also saves the lives of innocents is a bonus.
CORRECTED: An earlier version of this article stated there had been only one airdrop mission over Mt. Sinjar. This is incorrect: There have been seven.