Barack Obama returned to Washington on Monday after a brief family break in California to find himself confronted once again by the nightmare from which America thought it had escaped: Iraq.
Obama ran for the White House as a young leader who opposed the 2003 US invasion, and then won re-election as the steady hand who had finally withdrawn American troops eight years later.
But now his generals have brought out the old map once again and the 44th president — like the 41st, 42nd and 43rd — is contemplating new military action against targets in Iraq.
Without putting large numbers of US boots on the ground, Obama’s best option to counter a lightning offensive by Sunni extremist militants that have threatened the Baghdad government may be strikes from the air.
But, whether he limits action to drone strikes, cruise missile salvoes or bombardment from carrier-based aircraft, he will be taking a step he wanted to avoid: expanding US action in the Middle East.
- ‘Range of options’ -
On Monday night, Obama met with his national security team after returning from California.
“The purpose of that meeting would be to hear from members of his national security team directly about their ongoing efforts to present him with a range of options,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters prior to the meeting.
Last week, Obama said he would take a few days to study his options. Since then, the ISIL militant group that had captured Mosul has only made further gains against Iraqi government forces.
The Sunni extremist faction, fighting civil wars on two fronts in Iraq and Syria, has boasted on Twitter of having killed 1,700 Shiite prisoners — a claim denounced in Washington.
Late last month, in a major foreign policy address delivered before a graduating class at the West Point military academy, Obama expressed caution about new military adventures.
“Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” the commander-in-chief insisted.
But since then, officials as senior as Secretary of State John Kerry have signaled that he has not ruled out some form of military response to ISIL’s brazen aggression.
We have been here before.
Last year, Washington was braced for Obama to announce air strikes to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons. Obama declined.
For many, Obama’s reluctance to engage has proved a mistake. As Syria has plunged deeper into civil war, Assad’s opponent ISIL has gained in strength on both sides of the Syria-Iraq frontier.
When asked about the eventual deployment of American troops, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said: “The president was very clear that we will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq.”
But she noted that Washington had been “steadily increasing its security assistance” to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government over the past year, including in training and intelligence.
In a letter to Congressional leaders Monday night, Obama announced the deployment of up to 275 military personnel to protect American personnel and the US embassy in Baghdad.
The force “is equipped for combat,” he wrote.
- The Iran dilemma -
Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said a proper response might involve Washington reaching out to a fairly unlikely sounding new regional partner.
“What’s happening in Mosul is a wake-up call for the administration that the crisis in Syria is never simply going to stay in Syria and that crisis management is going to entail American leadership,” she said.
“I think there is an onus on the administration to engage in problem solving rather than simply crisis management and that means talking to all the parties in the region, particularly the Iranians.”
Iran is a long-time US foe but has a shared interest in protecting Maliki’s Shiite-led government, and Washington has not ruled out talks on Iraq.
On Monday, the US and Iran held “brief discussions” on the crisis in Vienna, on the sidelines of pre-planned negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
It is yet to be determined “if we want to keep talking to Iran about Iraq,” she added.
The idea of ongoing discussions will likely be anathema to many in Washington, and the idea has already come under attack from the right, which sees it as another sign of America losing its leadership role.
“The United States should be seeking to minimize greater Iranian involvement in Iraq right now, not encouraging it,” declared Senator John McCain.
“That means rapid, decisive US action to degrade (ISIL) and halt their offensive in Iraq. The longer we wait to act, the more our Iraqi partners grow dependent on the Iranian regime.”