Their artillery’s still a bit too close to Kurdistan’s capital for comfort.

19:59: Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm John Kirby confirms two additional air strikes on IS near Irbil, “to help defend the city where US personnel are assisting the government of Iraq”.

20:03: Adm John Kirby says that shortly after 17:00 local time in Iraq (14:00 GMT), a US drone twice struck an IS mortar position, and IS fighters were “successfully eliminated”.

20:05: In addition, Adm Kirby added that at about 18:20 local time in Iraq, four F/A-18 aircraft struck a stationary IS convoy of seven vehicles and a mortar position near Irbil.

20:06: Adm Kirby continues, “The aircraft executed two planned passes. On both runs, each aircraft dropped one laser guided bomb making a total of eight bombs dropped on target neutralising the mortar and convoy.”

I wonder how much of this battle will be fought with manned aircraft and how much by UAV. Presumably the big guns will be used until ISIS has been pushed back from Irbil and then replaced by drones to patrol the perimeter. I’ve also got to believe that the White House is quietly arming the Kurds behind the scenes. The official line is that Kurdistan is still part of Iraq and therefore all aid to the Kurds has to go through Baghdad, but there’s just no way the White House trusts Maliki enough at this point to let him play middleman when ISIS is already close enough to Irbil to threaten the city. Refusing to arm them when we’re bombing jihadis on their behalf would be beyond nuts. And remember, O’s been willing to quietly arm allies (or would-be allies) before while maintaining a public posture of ambivalence.

As for the airstrikes, the hawkiest hawk in the Senate says they’re worth less than nothing. Well, almost:

“It’s almost worse than nothing because I fear the president is threatening and then he won’t follow through,” said McCain. “It’s the weakest possible response and we cannot allow them to take Erbil. What [the administration has] done so far is almost meaningless.”…

He is calling for more U.S. air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as the urgent arming and training of the Kurdish Peshmerga. Until that happens, ISIS will continue to succeed militarily, McCain said.

“You’ve got to take the offensive against ISIS,” he said. “We are allowing them to freely move back and forth. The targets are easily identifiable. You are not going to begin to address the ISIS problem until you take out their enclaves in Syria.”

That’s an interesting question for Obama: How much is a Kurdistan that’s safe from ISIS worth to him? Is it worth secretly arming the peshmerga? Is it worth expanding this bombing campaign to Syria, which would leave us squarely (if temporarily) allied with the same guy in Damascus whom O wanted to bomb last year? Is it worth reaching out to Turkey and the Saudis and trying to assemble a multinational force to take on ISIS? It would be beyond strange if Turkey, of all nations, ended up being the saviors of Kurdistan, but it’s also beyond strange that Sunni leaders in the Middle East are plainly rooting for Israel to finish Hamas and not terribly shy about making that known.

One of the great mysteries of Iraq after the smoke clears will be why the U.S. insisted as long as it did on a unified country instead of cutting Maliki loose and throwing in squarely with the Kurds. We could have sent in military trainers and boatloads of heavy weapons last year, when ISIS was still manageable. Instead, here we are. While you mull that, here’s Jim Acosta of CNN asking White House mouthpiece Josh Earnest whether Obama still thinks ISIS is some sort of jihadi “JV” squad, as he implied back in January. That’s why they call it “smart power,” America.

Update: A former CIA counterterror analyst echoes McCain in arguing that if you’re going to hit ISIS hard enough to hurt them, you have no choice but to hit them where they live, i.e. in Syria. Obama might not be willing to expand the air assault now, writes Aki Peritz, but if the U.S. or one of its allies suffers a terror attack that was planned in Syria, all bets are off.