US & Canada

Iraq conflict: What should the US do?

Member of the Kurdish security forces is holding a weapon Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kurdish security forces guard a camp for Iraqis who have fled violence in a northern province

Iraq is in turmoil, and President Barack Obama is trying to decide how the US can help. Experts look at some of the options.

A militant group known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has taken over major cities in Iraq, and its leaders have announced they will head for the country's capital, Baghdad. President Barack Obama says that Iraqi forces need more support. But it is not clear how US officials will provide the assistance - or whether they should.

People familiar with the issue lay out what they believe are the best options for the US.

James Jay Carafano, vice president at Heritage Foundation

Think of the ISIS invasion as a terrible road accident. Right now what matters is spending less time worrying about why it happened and just jumping in and triaging the situation.

The US has to keep the Kurds and the Baghdad government in the fight. This isn't the time to cut a deal with Iran - that would be a disaster.

It's also important to keep Jordan stable. It's the next target. The important thing is to get the US and Turkey on the same page, working toward a common security agenda.

ISIS will likely run out of steam before they can take Baghdad. Then the US can go to work helping repair the damage from the vacuum it created by pulling out too soon.

The challenge for the Obama administration is to do the right thing, rather than just do something or nothing.

The ISIS is hardly 10 feet tall. But for once the White House needs to completely put politics aside and worry less about how meeting the challenge affects the president's legacy - and more about getting the mission done right, as expeditiously as possible.

PJ Crowley, former assistant secretary atUS state department

Iraq faces an existential question: whether it can survive as a unified country, Sadly, given the sorry performance of the Iraqi security forces thus far, it is an open question whether all Iraqis are prepared to fight for it.

Washington can't want an outcome more than the natives do. It's made that mistake before. Military support may be useful, but the challenge is really a political one.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is so distrusted that, even after the loss of Mosul, he couldn't command a parliamentary quorum to declare a state of emergency.

Mr Obama needs to say in private and if necessary in public that, notwithstanding the recent election results, Mr Maliki needs to step down.

There are things the United States can do - for example, tactical air operations in support of Iraq, with which it has a security partnership. But the price of admission is Mr Maliki's departure.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The situation in Iraq is getting steadily worse, and President Obama is faced with difficult choices

If Iraq fractures, so will Syria. Preventing that outcome has to be considered a vital US national interest.

Ellen Laipson, former vice chair of US national intelligence council

Mr Obama proclaimed in a speech to cadets at West Point that isolation is not an option and that regional aggression cannot go unchecked.

He also made clear that terrorism, particularly of the radical Islamist persuasion, is the most direct threat to US interests and security.

In the days since ISIS militants swept into Iraq and seized major towns and cities, the president has overcome his reluctance to re-engage in the Middle East and is considering military options to support Iraq and try to re-establish the authority of the state.

Even a limited military action, such as airstrikes against the militants or fast delivery of supplies and advice to the Iraqi forces, can help bolster the confidence of the regime and send a powerful psychological message to the region as a whole.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption US officials may have to use airstrikes to help people in Iraq

It's important to frame this not just as support for the deeply flawed prime minister, because the prospect of ISIS-controlled territory in the heart of the region means that US interests and those of key friends and allies are at risk.

Aaron David Miller, former adviser on the Middle East to secretaries of state

The Obama administration may be forced to respond with airstrikes and other kinds of military assistance. But they're unlikely to work over time. Here's why.

First, a commitment to stop ISIS is not a one-time deal, It would involve a sustained military strategy and, even more important, a determined effort to push Mr Maliki to be less repressive against Sunnis and to share Shia power with them.

In short, America would have to recommit itself to re-engage substantially in Iraq.

Second - if the US couldn't fix Iraq in eight years, how do we suppose we're going to get a better outcome now? The idea of an Iraq in which various sectarian groups all share power as one big happy family has always been an illusion.

It remains one now. Iran and Saudi Arabia will ensure it never happens.

Finally, trying to deal with ISIS in Iraq without dealing with the source in Syria would simply ensure that Iraq remains vulnerable to jihadi intrusions. Is the administration prepared to take on Syria and Iraq together?

Suzanne Nossel, a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine

The US cannot allow an atrocity-happy, hostile and lawless force of bandits to erect a jihadi state the size of Jordan in an already volatile Middle East.

Unpalatable as it is, the US needs to shore up the Iraqi government while it has a chance of holding on. The US should also bolster the Kurds' apparently disciplined and constructive force and equip moderate Syrian rebels to contain and beat back ISIS.

Mr Obama's claim to have ended the Iraq War will be deleted from the historical record, possibly permanently. He needs to let that go, banishing considerations of politics and legacy to get this right here and now.

Short of a miraculous turnaround, he will need to engage military assets - exactly which, how much and for how long we don't know, but these decisions can at least be informed by generals and diplomats who know Iraq.

During his first campaign Mr Obama condemned the Iraq conflict as a war of choice. Now he may decide it is a war of necessity.