WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces a range of difficult choices as his administration struggles to save Iraq's government from a virulent Sunni insurgency, according to analysts and lawmakers.
Congress and the American voters seem reluctant to back the type of aggressive U.S. military action that might prevent Iraq from splintering into two or three separate states.
Obama, who withdrew the last U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 2011, ruled out yesterday "sending U.S. troops back into combat." And he made it clear that the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki needs to adopt a major reconciliation effort with Sunnis and Kurds, or no U.S. military action could be successful.
"Before we have a knee-jerk decision to support the Iraqi government against terrorists, we need to demand it be a government worth supporting," said retired Lt. Colonel Peter Mansoor, a professor of military science at Ohio State University. He served in 2007 and 2008 as the executive officer in Iraq to Gen. David Petraeus.
"We should make it clear if the Iraqi government wants U.S. military assistance, it needs to be a government of a national unity, stop the persecution of Maliki's political enemies, and form a government all Iraqis can support. And that may mean Maliki will no longer be the prime minister," Mansoor said.
Loren Thompson, CEO of the defense research group Lexington Institute in Washington, said, "The basic problem in Iraq can't be solved by U.S. air power and not even by boots on the ground. There is a divide in Iraq between the Sunnis in the North and the (Shiites) in the south, and the bottom line probably is this place probably shouldn't be a country. It should be two countries."
Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, went even further, saying that the U.S. should "immediately" evacuate the 4,000 Americans still in Iraq. Saying that "the collapse at this point is not something we have the ability to stop," Tiberi said he would back airstrikes as part of an evacuation plan.
But if the United States doesn't back the Iraqi government, large swaths of northern Iraq and Syria could fall under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a violent, fundamentalist group that wants to establish a strict Islamic way of life. Analysts fear that areas dominated by the group will become training havens for terrorists.
"I hate to see us do nothing," said Richard Herrmann, a professor of political science at Ohio State and a State Department official under former President George H.W. Bush. "We don't have a lot of options. I don't think the president and others could mobilize enough domestic support to send in forces."
Even Republican critics of Obama seem to have little interest in dispatching U.S. forces to Iraq. Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, said, "We should give them some air cover as they fight a force that could really destabilize the country and, more importantly, destabilize the worldwide energy markets."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, said, "It's long past time for the president to lay out a plan for how we can reverse the momentum and spread of terrorism in Iraq." But he did not say what plan he might support.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Americans cannot "afford to turn our backs on this problem, and I do not think it is wise to be taking options off the table at this point."
Democrats appeared no more eager for a new fight in Iraq. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who as a House member in 2002 voted against using force in Iraq, said, "Instead of committing American troops, we should work with the international community — and the Iraqi government — to help it resolve this situation."