U.S. President Barack Obama ruled out putting American boots back in Iraq, but he hinted Friday that he might order an air war to stop advancing Sunni jihadis carving out an extremist caliphate across Iraq and Syria.
"We can't do it for them," Mr. Obama said in an attempt to prod a paralyzed Iraqi government into stemming the headlong flight of its retreating, U.S.-trained and equipped army. Internal sectarian bickering has Baghdad politics in gridlock.
"We're not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which – while we're there we're keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, after we're not there – people start acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country," a seemingly shaken Mr. Obama said in a brief appearance before leaving the White House in his helicopter.
The President, who came to power vowing to end U.S. involvement in the Iraq war – a war he once called "dumb" as opposed to the "right war" in Afghanistan – is facing the worst foreign policy nightmare of his six years in the Oval Office.
Insisting that "all options" were on the table and calling for international support, Mr. Obama has, in fact, very few options and almost no likelihood of international support for military action.
For instance, with ground troops ruled out, the President's choices range from doing nothing to limited stand-off attacks with cruise missiles, token air strikes to buy time for Baghdad's army to regroup, or an ongoing and open-ended air war to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which threatens to topple regimes in both Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Obama has a powerful arsenal at his disposal, but the commander-in-chief, who only last month was explaining his foreign policy was to avoid military force unless U.S. national security interests were directly threatened, seemed to be caught unprepared.
In his new comments on the Iraq situation, he seemed to be laying out a justification for military action when he described ISIL as a vicious terrorist organization that "could pose a threat eventually to American interests."
He has plenty of military tools. Closest to hand is the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, deployed in the Arabian Sea and carrying more than 100 warplanes. Other U.S. warships with scores of cruise missiles are in Persian Gulf. Long-range bombers, capable of striking Iraq round-the-clock, could fly from bases in the region and in the United States. Mr. Obama could order devastating and ongoing air strikes if he chooses.
Other options such as increased arms shipment to Iraq may be counterproductive. With Iraqi army units – already gifted with modern U.S. armoured vehicles, sophisticated weapons, coveted night-vision equipment and massive stockpiles of ammunition – cutting and running and leaving their equipment behind for the advancing Sunni extremists, sending more materiel to be lost is unlikely.
Passing along increased intelligence and surveillance data – already gathered by spy satellites – might help, but not unless Baghdad's Shia-led government can persuade its Shia-dominated army to stand and hold traditional Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad.
But Mr. Obama wants to see Baghdad act first. "I want to make sure that everybody understands this message: The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis," he said.
Mr. Obama last launched an air war in 2010 in Libya. Then he was armed with a United Nations Security Council resolution and broad support from North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies – including Canada, which sent fighter-bombers – for 200-plus days of air strikes that eventually toppled Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
The rapid and ruthless advance by ISIL, jihadis so extreme that even al-Qaeda cut ties earlier this year, threatens to tear Iraq asunder, with a Sunni-dominated heartland, a Shia south and a nascent Kurdish state in the northeast. Already well-equipped Kurdish peshmergas have consolidated their hold on northern Iraq, seizing the oil-rich centre of Kirkuk. And ISIL forces have already seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Black flags and beheaded corpses mark their march south.