President Obama on Friday said the United States would not “allow ourselves to be dragged back into” a military conflict in Iraq.
Obama said he is considering options for how to deal with Sunni extremists who have taken over broad swaths of Iraq and Syria, but laid the ultimate responsibility for solving the crisis on Iraq’s struggling central government.
Obama said violence in Iraq should serve as a “wake up call” to Iraqi leaders, and that they would need to solve the underlying problems there “without resorting to war or relying on the military” of the United States.
“Any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq's communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force,” he said.
He acknowledged that Iraq needs additional support, but emphasized he had ruled out sending troops back in.
Iraq’s government has requested U.S. air strikes, but the White House has resisted the calls so far. Some in Congress question whether they could be effective given how the Iraqi military has so far folded before the advance of militants who took over the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit.
Obama said the evaluation of military action would “take several days,” and that if he were to order drone or aerial strikes, he wanted to make sure “they're targeted, they're precise, and they're going to have an effect.”
“People should not anticipate this is something that is going to happen overnight,” Obama said.
The march by al Qaeda-affiliated militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has forced more than half a million refugees to flee their homes.
The Iraqi military, which was the beneficiary of $25 billion in U.S. military aid and training, largely abandoned the fight as militants pressed through Mosul and Tikrit.
There's fear that if the rebellion is able to establish a foothold in Iraq and Syria, the resulting area could become a safe haven for jihadists. Already, ISIS has announced it would impose Sharia law in Mosul, ordering women to stay in their homes and warning that thieves faced dismemberment.
Obama acknowledged Friday that “given the nature of these terrorists,” their rise could eventually pose a risk to American interests, as well.
The crisis in Iraq represents a worst-case scenario for a president whose political rise was based in part of his opposition to the Iraq war and his promise to end it.
U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, and Republicans are attacking Obama over his failure to reach an agreement with Iraq’s government that might have allowed a residual U.S. force to stay in the country.
Obama has championed the end of the Iraq war as a signature accomplishment of his presidency, but that legacy will be severely tarnished if the country’s government falls and a terrorist state takes its place.
Sen. John McCainJohn McCainFive fights for Trump’s first year Trump wall faces skepticism on border No Congress members along Mexico border support funding Trump's wall MORE (R-Ariz.), who Obama defeated handily in the 2008 election, argued that Obama had lost Iraq. He said the troop surge backed by President George W. Bush in 2007 and opposed by Obama had won the war.
“The fact is, we had the conflict won. The surge had succeeded,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during an appearance on MSNBC Friday. “And then, the decision was made by the Obama administration to not have a residual force in Iraq.”
The president's approach could be popular with an American population that has repeatedly indicated it is wary of war and the Iraq conflict.
It is far from clear that there would be support in Congress or among voters for aggressive military action in Iraq.
Another worry for the administration is a spike in oil prices.
Crude oil has risen to a nine-month high amid fears over the instability in Iraq, and pressure will only increase in the summer travel season.
Obama said he would be consulting with other countries in the region over the next week in the hopes other Gulf states could “pick up the slack” if Iraqi oil production is disrupted.
This story was updated at 12:56 p.m.