President Obama said Thursday that the United States was open to using airstrikes to batter the Islamist forces that have conquered broad swaths of Iraq, but the grim reality is that the White House has few good options for preventing a vicious al Qaeda-linked militant group from advancing toward Baghdad three years after the U.S. effectively washed its hands of Iraq's security problems.
The White House and the nation's intelligence community seemed to be caught flat-footed by the rapid offensive by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, and the administration is now scrambling to find ways of helping the Iraqi government prevent the militants from reaching Baghdad. The security situation took a turn for the worse Thursday after Iraqi forces fled Kirkuk, leaving jubilant Kurdish forces to sweep in and assume control of the oil-rich northern city, and the militants reached the central Iraqi city of Samarra, home to an important Shiite shrine. By nightfall, insurgents were within 70 miles of Baghdad. The United States, fearing that an Iraqi air base could be overrun, began evacuating dozens of American contractors there who had been training the Iraqis on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and jet fighters.
But the mere prospect of stepped-up involvement in Iraq marks a troubling turn of events for a presidency that has long prided itself on withdrawing American forces from two unpopular wars. President Obama and his top aides now face two knotty and related questions. First, would the White House be willing to undertake even a limited U.S. military intervention into Iraq after almost three years of taking credit for ending the long war there? Second, and much more importantly, could the United States actually do anything militarily that would halt the insurgents' advance and begin driving them out of the cities they've already conquered?
Obama's comments Thursday suggested that the answer to the first question is a tentative yes. Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Australia's prime minister, Tony Abbott, Obama said the militants' onslaught "indicates the degree to which Iraq's going to need more help" from the United States and the international community. He said his national security staff has been working "around the clock" on options for how to respond. At this point, said Obama, "I don't rule out anything."
That marks a sharp shift from Obama's thinking as early as last month, when he reportedly turned down an Iraqi request for American airstrikes against ISIS targets. Administration officials have fully ruled out the prospect of sending ground troops back to Iraq, but those types of airstrikes are clearly now under consideration. They may not happen anytime soon, however: A senior defense official said late Thursday that the Pentagon has not been tasked with identifying targets for any such action in Iraq because the White House has not yet made a decision on the matter.
Obama's comments Thursday come not only as the situation in Iraq grows more dire, but as the president's critics in Washington -- and even some former senior administration officials -- decry a foreign policy that they have said is out of sync with the realities in the region. The shortfalls are particularly evident in Syria, where the president overruled most of his top national security advisors several years ago and refused to provide arms to the moderate rebel groups battling Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Outgunned and underfunded, the secular rebels have been steadily losing ground to Assad. The insurgency itself is increasingly dominated by Islamist extremists who have joined forces with militants in Iraq to form ISIS. That group is now threatening to create a new state out of large portions of what had been parts of both Syria and Iraq.
The degree to which the ISIS invasion has been effective -- and the Iraqi security forces have been ineffective, abandoning their posts and retreating, in some cases -- has caught by surprise a White House determined to keep Iraq in its rearview mirror. Defending its actions in the region, the administration has been touting its robust foreign military sales program to Iraq, totaling $15 billion, that includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, tanks, and small arms. But in a reversal from the days of the Iraq war when there was a "Washington clock" and a "Baghdad clock," in which Washington was pushing the Iraqis to move faster to achieve their own security, now it is Baghdad which is pushing Washington to move faster to deliver that equipment so it can stabilize its country.
But as such, the Iraqis have taken delivery of only a portion of that military hardware. And while Baghdad has asked for the United States to speed up its sales of military equipment, it's far from clear what new Apache helicopters, jet fighters, or tanks would do to help now. The Iraqis don't have troops skilled enough to operate and maintain complicated military hardware, particularly when it comes to aircraft. Last week, a delegation of senior Iraqi officials took possession of a new F-16 jet fighter at a ceremony in Texas, but that plane won't even be delivered to Iraq until later this summer, and the country's nascent air force isn't seen as ready to use it for any kind of combat operations for months to come.
The White House had long been content to leave it to the Iraqis to use the hardware to fight their own fight. Now, Obama is being forced back into a conflict he had been eager to draw himself out of in 2011 after negotiations over a long-term security agreement between the two countries broke down.
Still, despite the crisis, there is little likelihood that the American government would consider putting any troops on the ground. That means that airstrikes are the only real option for a potential U.S. military intervention into Iraq as the crisis there continues to grow. That's not a simple endeavor, however. While such a forceful approach might address the political crisis in Washington, it could have very little strategic or even tactical effect -- and it would almost certainly pose enormous risks. For such strikes to be effective, the United States would need ground personnel to provide intelligence and "situational awareness" to call in attacks.
The Iraqi security forces don't have troops capable of relaying detailed targeting information, which would likely require the Pentagon or the CIA to send small numbers of American personnel into Iraq to handle that difficult mission. Without adequate ground intelligence, the United States could run the risk of accidentally killing Iraqi security forces or, even worse, civilians.
"Airstrikes are tricky," Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said. "In an urban environment, they can become indiscriminate, resulting in civilians killed and infrastructure damaged."
The ideal circumstance for an airstrike would occur when ISIS units are traveling in convoys or massing in large groups of fighters. A kinetic strike in that scenario would reduce the chances of civilian deaths, a critical consideration given Iraq's already toxic sectarian divisions.
"The one thing the government and the West can't do is further alienate the Sunni population in the north and west [by accidentally killing Sunnis in errant airstrikes]," Henman said. "Otherwise, any U.S. involvement would be easily construed and utilized for ISIS propaganda."
Given the complexity of Iraq's problems, and the difficult politics of a renewed U.S. engagement in the country, even the most hawkish Republicans aren't on the same page about the appropriate U.S. response to ISIS's incursions.
On the one side, reliable interventionists like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) have called for the United States to step up military support for the Iraqis, including airstrikes and drone strikes. In a fiery floor speech on Thursday, McCain called on the president to fire "everybody in his national security team," including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
However, other top Republicans, such as Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the United States has already provided enough assistance to the Iraqis -- and it's time for Baghdad to deal with its own security problems.
"I'm not interested myself personally right now in doing anything," McKeon told Foreign Policy in an interview. "We went there. We lost a lot of blood, a lot of treasure, did a lot for them. They weren't interested in us staying. They made a choice. We've got a lot of other problems to deal with."
Many Democrats are similarly fatigued. "Every time some part of Iraq becomes destabilized, we're going to come parachute in and undo it?" asked Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It was not Barack Obama who created this mess. It was George W. Bush."
While refusing to dedicate troops on the ground, the administration still wants to be seen as doing something. On Thursday, the State Department announced an increase in humanitarian assistance to Iraq in the form of an additional $12.8 million to international aid partners operating in Iraq.
"This new assistance will provide immediate relief by supplying food, shelter, and medicine for Iraq's rapidly growing population of displaced people," said the department. The International Organization for Migration reports that up to 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence in Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh province in recent days.