June 13th, 2014
09:54 AM ET
June 13th, 2014
04:38 AM ET

What Are U.S. Options in Iraq?

For better or worse, Iraq and the United States have been attached at the hip for decades.

From the 1991 Gulf War to the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein to subsequent years marred by violence and instability, there's no doubting the deep connection between the two nations. That's largely thanks to policies crafted out of Washington, be they intended to contain or eliminate Hussein or to stabilize and build up the fragile nation that remained in his wake.

So it is no surprise that, with militants overrunning much of Iraq and threatening its capital, people are turning to the United States.

What can it do? What will it do?

President Barack Obama has met with his national security team, which is preparing options for how the United States can make a difference in Iraq. As Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday, "I know the President of the United States is prepared to make key decisions in short order."

Among Obama's options:

Option No. 1: Send in American troops

It's happened before.

First there was the Gulf War rout. U.S. troops didn't stay for long after that, but they did hunker down 12 years later. The responsibility that comes with rebuilding a country from over 6,000 miles away was one factor but so was the continued violence.

American troop levels in Iraq peaked at 166,300 in October 2007, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Critics derided the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011. Among them was Sen. John McCain, who on Thursday reiterated his disgust at that decision and called for the firing of Obama's national security team in part over what's happened in Iraq.

"Could all this have been avoided?" the Arizona Republican said about the current state of Iraq, though he didn't outright call for fresh military action. "And the answer is: Absolutely yes."

The biggest, simplest way to make an impact in Iraq: Send American troops back into the country.

But it won't happen again.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN on Thursday that no one is calling for "American troops into Iraq." And of all options now on the table, it's the only one that the Obama administration has explicitly nixed.

"We are not contemplating ground troops," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. "I want to be clear about that."

Option No. 2: U.S. airstrikes

Still, while the U.S. military might not have a role fighting on the ground in Iraq, it could have a role over it.

Obama said Thursday that "our national security team is looking at all the options," adding that "I don't rule anything out."

Expanding on the President's comments later in the day, Carney stated that Obama "was responding to the question about requests for airstrikes and would he consider airstrikes."

In the past, Iraqis have been very public about their desire to limit the involvement of the American military. Yet on Wednesday, a U.S. official said the Iraqi government had indicated a willingness for the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes targeting members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other militants.

American air power has proven effective before in campaigns such as Kosovo or Libya.

Yet it's not foolproof.

On Thursday, Carney dodged a question about whether Obama might consult Congress before sending warplanes into Iraq - saying it's too early to give an answer because the President hasn't decided the best course of action yet.

Plus, there are limits and challenges to attacking sites from the air.

For one, there's still a risk of casualties should warplanes be shot down. And secondly, it can be difficult to wipe out an insurgency from above, especially if militants blend into the civilian population.

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02:40 AM ET

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