President Obama and his national security team are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing situation in Iraq that is blurring the line between enemy and ally in the Middle East.
The rise of the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has led U.S. officials to openly consider working with Iran, and given the U.S. a mutual enemy with Syria’s government.
It is also opening the White House up to severe Republican criticism that a bungled response to the Syrian war led to the current crisis in Iraq.
Obama informed Congress under the War Powers Resolution that he was deploying 275 U.S. military personnel to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and assist State Department personnel moving around the war-torn country.
The White House is coming under pressure to consider military action, creating a challenge for Obama’s latest foreign policy vision of using tough diplomacy, collective action and military restraint to assert U.S. influence in the Middle East and around the globe.
While White House officials insisted Monday that there was a high bar to authorizing military action, it also took a series of steps to prepare for a potential military strike.
One U.S. official confirmed that the U.S. had begun flying intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance flights over Sunni-controlled territory and developing specific targets for a possible drone or airstrike.
Additionally, the Pentagon has deployed at least two U.S. warships to join an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Both ships boast Tomahawk missiles that could reach Iraq’s inner territory, while the carrier boasts F-18 Super Hornet jets capable of carrying out airstrikes over Iraq.
And the USS Mesa Verde, with its roughly 500 Marines and as many as 12 MV-22 helicopters, has also been sent to the region. The aircraft could conduct rapid crisis response operations should the State Department decide to evacuate its embassy.
Options for airstrikes by the Pentagon include ISIS front lines as they approach the north of Baghdad, border crossings with Syria where men and supplies now cross between the two countries, or staging areas in border towns, an administration official told The New York Times.
But the U.S. doesn’t want to trust the Iraqi government to identify targets, and the president’s vow not to deploy troops back into Iraq complicates the selection of potential sites.
The Associated Press reported Monday that the president will consider sending a group of special forces back into the country to help assist in airstrikes.
On Monday night, Obama was sitting down with his top national security staff to go over the various options.
“The goal of the president is to get an update on the thinking of individual members of his team as they’ve been working over the weekend to prepare some options,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Republicans argue the failure to take action in Syria has led to the situation in Iraq.
Most Republicans and Democrats in Congress were unwilling to get the U.S. involved militarily in Syria, however, and U.S. allies also took a pass on that conflict.
There is also a general war-wariness among U.S. voters that could make any military action politically unpopular.
Pressure for military action is growing after ISIS posted unverified but graphic pictures online that appeared to depict a mass execution of Iraqi security forces.
“When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that,” Secretary of State John Kerry told Yahoo News on Monday.
The U.S. wants to prevent ISIS from establishing a foothold in northern Iraq, but is also wary of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian approach to governance.
“Any action we take would have to be done in conjunction with a serious and sincere effort by Iraqi leaders to govern in a non-sectarian manner, promote stability and unity among Iraq’s diverse population, build and invest in the capacity of Iraq’s security forces, and address the legitimate grievances of Iraq’s Sunni, Kurd, and Shia communities,” said White House spokesman Shawn Turner.
Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the “time to pursue broad, inclusive democratic governance in Iraq” may have passed.
“This is more likely a time to align the diplomacy so that Iraq’s neighbors with their various interests stop supporting different antagonists inside,” he said.
Ken Pollack, a national security scholar at the Brookings Institution, warns the administration could be “crucified” if it can’t frame coordination with Iran as part of a broader strategic vision.
“They’re going to have to come forward with a much more comprehensive strategic vision for the Middle East and explain what they’re doing in Iraq and explain how the outreach with Iran is part of this,” he said.
Just last month, Obama declared that the threshold for military action should be high when issues arise that “do not pose a direct threat to the United States.”
“In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action,” Obama said.
Kristina Wong contributed.