Sending military advisers to Iraq may be thin end of the wedge for Obama
Despite trying to limit US military involvement in tackling Iraq's revolt, the president risks being sucked into a new Middle East maelstrom
US President Barack Obama's decision to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq is a limited move to stiffen its beleaguered government and army against the revolt led by Islamist extremists. It reflects the aversion of the president and the American public to US intervention in the sectarian bloodletting.
Obama "is trying to minimise US engagement and that's not surprising. His predilection is not to get involved," said Daniel Serwer, a Middle East Institute fellow and a former diplomat involved in a review of Iraq war strategy for the Bush administration.
Yet by sending military advisers, intensifying the collection and sharing of intelligence with the Iraqi government and keeping open the option of launching US air strikes, Obama risks getting sucked deeper into a new Middle East maelstrom.
"The slippery slope concern is a very valid concern, and some of what we are seeing in the president's policy reflects that that is very much a concern inside the administration," said Paul Pillar, a former chief US intelligence analyst for the Middle East.
Special operations teams will initially be deployed in and around Baghdad and in northern Iraq to assess the threat from militants while the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies step up drone surveillance and aerial reconnaissance, officials said.
"American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well," Obama said on Thursday after meeting his top national security advisers.
Although Obama said "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders", he and his aides made it clear that they were open to alternatives to Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has marginalised minority Sunnis and ethnic Kurds and amassed absolute control over the security establishment during his eight years in power.
Obama urged the new Iraqi parliament, elected in April, to form a unity government as soon as possible that "represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis". "There's no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States," he said. "But there is an urgent need for an inclusive political process."
His announcements came amid growing pressure to act.
In Iraq, Sunni fighters led by the brutal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) pressed an advance on Baghdad that threatens to break the oil-rich country apart. In the US, Republicans stepped up rhetorical assaults on Obama for what they decry as his feckless policies on the wars in Syria and Iraq and the Russia-backed uprising in Ukraine.
"The president has weakened the national security posture of the United States," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said during a series of co-ordinated Republican speeches.
Yet only hours after Obama spoke, a poll reaffirmed that a majority of Americans oppose intervention of any kind.
The distaste for intervention is in line with Obama's own views.
He campaigned for the presidency in 2008 on a vow to complete a pull-out of US forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, which he upheld. And in a May 28 speech, Obama made clear that the US military should only get involved in overseas crises that put US lives and interests directly at risk.