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Obama won't bomb Iraq — for now. Here's what he might do.

The last US convoy out of Iraq.
The last US convoy out of Iraq.
Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Late Tuesday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration has ruled out airstrikes in Iraq in the short term.

Instead, the paper reported, the administration is leaning more toward providing non-combat assistance to the Iraqi military, with options ranging from intelligence cooperation to sending special forces to train the Iraqi military.

President Obama decided to hold off on airstrikes because "U.S. military officials lack sufficient information to hit targets that would shift momentum on the battlefield," the Journal noted. Gathering sufficient intelligence to identify Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) targets is extremely hard absent a US ground presence. Obama apparently judged either that these difficulties were too severe, airstrikes alone weren't enough to turn the tide, or both.  Either way the administration believes strikes can't be justified in the immediate term.

What the American response to the crisis in Iraq will look like still isn't clear. The leading option appears to involve three planks. First, the deployment of US special forces to gather intelligence, provide battlefield guidance to Iraqi combat units, and possibly train Iraqi soldiers. Second, securing commitment to political reform from the Iraqi government, whose favoring of the Shia majority over the Sunni minority has exacerbated the conflict. Third, look for some avenue to cooperate with other countries in the region to support the anti-ISIS campaign (how that would be accomplished isn't specified).

That said, airstrikes aren't permanently ruled out. "U.S. strikes are still actively under discussion," the Journal reports, "but [senior administration] officials cautioned Tuesday that they don't expect Mr. Obama to put military action back on the table quickly."

One last interesting nugget: Pentagon planners reportedly put together a strategy that involved sending 1,400 military advisers to work inside Iraqi battalions, but "that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences."

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