WASHINGTON — The United States has moved military assets to enable “targeted and precise military action if and when” the US administration “decides that the situation on the ground requires it,” US President Barack Obama said during a White House announcement about the deteriorating situation in Iraq Thursday afternoon. Obama’s announcement delineating US actions taken in Iraq came minutes after the president concluded a meeting with his National Security Council to discuss the takeover of large sections of northern Iraq by the radical ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
In recent days, Obama has been pressed by Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki to launch strategic airstrikes against the ISIL forces who are encroaching upon Baghdad after a lightening offensive in the north of the country, but Obama did not promise any such action.
Instead, he said, the US will increase its joint training operations with the Iraqi Security Forces, and has already increased intelligence and surveillance assets in the area to better counter the threat posed by ISIL. Although Obama ruled out early on the possibility of bringing US troops back for combat in Iraq, Obama said that even without committing ground forces, the US “will help take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people.”
The president did, however, say that a number of assets had been moved to the region so that the US “will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we decide that the situation on the ground requires it.”
Obama emphasized that any steps taken by the US will be carried out in cooperation with the local government, adding that “in an optimal situation local forces, like Iraqis, will take the lead” — a line that did not rule out the involvement of militia groups beyond the ISR, the Iraqi government fighting force.
The president announced Thursday afternoon that Secretary of State John Kerry would depart for the Middle East and Europe over the weekend, to discuss the situation in Iraq with a number of other countries.
In what was likely a warning to Iran, which has amassed troops close to the Iraqi border, Obama warned “all of Iraq’s neighbors” to “respect Iraq’s territorial integrity” and called on Iraqi leaders to “rise above their differences and come up with a political plan for Iraq’s future.”
Obama also responded to critics who cited the fact that the US did not leave a residual force in Iraq, saying that it was not a decision he made, but rather a decision made by the Iraqi government. “Despite that decision, we have continued to provide them with very intensive advice and support,” Obama added. The president assured reporters that any action he took militarily would be determined in close consultation with Capitol Hill.
Late Wednesday, Obama met with a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders to discuss the situation in Iraq in the face of confusion over whether or not the president would need to seek Congressional authorization for any military action in Iraq.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-TN) said that in the meeting, Obama “indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-IL) issued a statement after the meeting in which she asserted that the president “does not need “any further legislative authority to pursue the particular options for increased security assistance discussed today.”
White House officials say that the administration still supports the repeal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq which Congress passed prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2002. White House officials have suggested that because the sovereign government of Iraq has requested assistance from the United States, the AUMF might not be necessary to commit US forces to action against ISIL.
US Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, have already sailed into the Persian Gulf to bulk up the American presence there.
The administration says that it sent approximately 170 personnel to provide additional security assistance for embassy workers in Iraq, and are expected to help to temporarily relocate staff from the Baghdad embassy to US consulates in Basra and Erbil and to the Iraq Support Unit in Amman.
An additional 100 soldiers were also moved to the region, according to the White House, “to provide airfield management security and logistic support if required.”
White House Spokesman Jay Carney was careful to emphasize that this is “a very discreet and distinct mission” and that “we are not, as the president has made clear, contemplating a return of US troops back into combat in Iraq.”
According to Carney, the administration is reviewing three elements: how to most effectively deal with the urgent and imminent threat from ISIL; how to build the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to fight this threat in both the short and long term; and how to encourage Iraq’s leaders to put aside their differences and to facilitate nonsectarian cooperative governance.
“Ultimately, the solution that is needed is an Iraqi one, and any US action, including any possible military action, would be in support of a strategy to build the capacity of the Iraqis to effectively and sustainably counter the threat posed by extremists,” Carney elaborated, confirming that “military action is a component of the options the president is considering.”
Carney told reporters that “the ultimate objective here is to protect the national security interests of the United States, to prevent portions of Iraq, portions of the region from becoming a safe haven for ISIL — extremists who may ultimately pose a threat to the United States or to our interests abroad and our allies.”
The United States, Carney said, “can take steps to help the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government deal with the immediate threat posed by extremist groups like ISIL,” but warned that “in the medium and long term, it absolutely has to be Iraqi leaders who take the steps necessary to ensure that the security forces are up to the task and will provide security for the whole country and for all citizens of that country and all regions of the country.”
Former vice president Dick Cheney wrote a critical opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal in which he complained about the current administration’s Middle East policy — especially in Iraq — saying that “rarely has a US President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”
Responding to Cheney’s criticism that the president was overly lackadaisical regarding the crisis in Iraq, Carney claimed that “the president is being very deliberate about decisions surrounding the question of the use of American military force. And his belief is that we should always be very deliberate in that kind of decision-making process and that we should very carefully weigh the consequences, both desired and undesired, that can come from the use of US military force, and we should have a very clear focus in mind about what our national security objectives are and what we, the United States, can achieve through military force as opposed to what, in this case, the sovereign nation of Iraq and its security forces can and must achieve.”
“There is a lot of work that is ongoing at the direction of the president around the situation in Iraq. He is continuing to consider options consistent with the ongoing war, and he has not ruled out any options beyond deploying US troops back into combat in Iraq.”
Both State Department and White House officials emphasized that Iraq must take responsibility for its own security, and that Washington supports the results of the recent Iraqi elections held earlier this spring.
A number of officials, however, warned that governance must be carried out in a nonsectarian way in order to achieve stability in the country, which is divided among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
“And one of the reasons why we have seen the instability in portions of the country and the ability of ISIL personnel to make the gains that they have is because of the failures of the Iraqi government to govern in an inclusive way and to make it clear to all sectors of society in Iraq that the government represents and defends all of them. And it is essential that the Iraqi leadership take steps to repair that situation. That is an important element in our approach to Iraq right now,” Carney elaborated.