WASHINGTON — In a high-profile speech to Army cadets last month, President Barack Obama tried to move beyond America's tumultuous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan with a new doctrine all but forswearing the use of military power except in the most dire of circumstances.
Barely two weeks later, Obama has found himself in those circumstances and seems on the verge of ordering the U.S. military to intervene once more in Iraq. While ruling out ground troops to save the beleaguered Baghdad government from insurgents, Obama is considering a range of options, including airstrikes by drones and piloted aircraft.
The possible return to Iraq, even in limited form, underscores just how much that forlorn land has shaped Obama's presidency. It defined his first campaign for the White House, when his opposition to the war powered his candidacy. It defined his foreign policy as he resolved to pull out of Iraq and keep out of places like Syria. And it defined the legacy he hoped to leave as he imagined history books remembering him for ending America's overseas wars.
Yet as much as he wanted Iraq in the rearview mirror, the swift march toward Baghdad by Islamist extremists calling themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has forced him to reconsider his approach. As much as he wanted to leave the fate of Iraq to the Iraqis themselves, he concluded that the United States still has a stake in avoiding the collapse of a state it occupied for more than eight years at the cost of nearly 4,500 U.S. lives.
Obama has long been criticized by Republicans for pulling troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 without leaving behind a small residual force. That was a timetable originally agreed to by President George W. Bush, and Iraqi leaders at the time would not agree to immunity provisions insisted on by the Pentagon, but critics argued Obama should have tried harder to extend the U.S. presence.
Republicans on Friday urged Obama to act decisively in Iraq, questioning why he wants to take several days to decide. "We shouldn't have boots on the ground, but we need to be hitting these columns of terrorists marching on Baghdad with drones now," said Rep. Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the president should consider firing his national security team.
Liberal activists were more vehement. "For the last 12 years, Iraq has been Bush and Cheney's war," said Becky Bond, the political director for an activist group called Credo. "But if the president decides to double down on George W. Bush's disastrous decision to invade Iraq by launching a new round of bombing strikes, Iraq will become Barack Obama's war."
That would be the last thing Obama would want. For him, Iraq has been the template of everything foreign policy should not be.
Even as he acknowledged the possibility of using force again in Iraq on Friday, he put the onus on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to set aside sectarian differences and stabilize their country.
"The United States will do our part," he said, "but understand that ultimately it's up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems."