Obama Will Hold Off on Airstrikes in Iraq, for Now

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Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

Sunni militants continued their advance in Iraq on Tuesday night, laying siege to the nation's largest oil refinery. The Beiji refinery makes up more than a quarter of Iraq's refining capacity, and if it falls, the country could see long lines at gas stations and electricity shortages. Despite the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, President Obama has reportedly decided against conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki asked the U.S. to conduct strikes against the insurgents last month, but Obama is said to be focused on trying other strategies first, such as pushing Maliki to make his Shiite-dominant government more inclusive.

President Obama has scheduled a meeting to discuss Iraq with congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday, and according to The Wall Street Journal, he'll brief them on his plan for a comprehensive response, which includes providing intelligence to the Iraqi military, mending sectarian rifts in the government, and seeking support from allies in the region.

"The President has been clear, that this is not primarily a military challenge," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday. "It is still very much an imperative that Iraq’s political leaders take steps to become more united, to govern in a non-sectarian manner."

Obama has opted not to conduct airstrikes in the immediate future partly because ISIS targets are difficult to identify, and it's unclear if they would significantly alter the situation on the ground. U.S. military action has not been ruled out entirely, and in addition to the roughly 275 U.S. troops sent to Iraq to secure the American embassy, special forces soldiers may be deployed to assist the Iraqi army.

The New York Times reports that one option still under consideration is a "targeted, highly selective campaign of airstrikes" against ISIS, probably using drones. The campaign probably wouldn't be launched for days or longer, and would depend on whether the U.S. can find a suitable target. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that approval of Obama's foreign policy has hit a new low of 37 percent, and one advantage of launching limited airstrikes is that they'd probably be easier to sell to Congress and the public than more troop involvement. American have little interest in being dragged back into Iraq, but they might have fewer objections if it's just added to the list of countries — which includes Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan — where the U.S. is already targeting suspected terrorists with drones.