The embattled government in Iraq suddenly finds itself quite a bit more fond of American military power than it did in 2011. According to the BBC, the US has received a formal request for air strikes to assist in the defense of Baghdad, as ISIS forces approach the capital:

Iraq has formally called on the United States to launch air strikes against jihadist militants who have seized several key cities.

“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” confirmed top US military commander Gen Martin Dempsey.

The announcement came after insurgents launched an attack on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery north of Baghdad.

Reuters indirectly confirmed this from a report on Al-Arabiya television:

A news alert on the Al Arabiya news channel quoted Zebari as saying: “We request the United States to launch air strikes against militants.”

This puts the Obama administration even more on the spot than they have been for the last few days. Barack Obama promised that the Iraq War was “over” when we pulled out all of our forces, save for those protecting the American embassy. This week, Obama authorized the deployment of 275 troops, but as advisers and protection, not for offensive operations, at least not primarily. National Journal wonders, as did Noah yesterday, whether military action would be legal now that the force authorization for Iraq has been concluded:

Indeed, despite the U.S. military operating freely in Iraq for eight years during its occupation, a potential strike against forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its allies presents a tougher call than it appears.

For one thing, the administration has in no uncertain terms repeatedly declared the conflict in Iraq to be over—and in 2011, the United States effectively pulled out of the country after an agreement to leave a more robust U.S. presence couldn’t be reached with the Iraqi government. That means the White House may no longer be able to seek legal cover by invoking the 2002 law passed by Congress that authorized the Iraq invasion.

“It’s a bad argument,” said Bobby Chesney, an expert on national security law at the University of Texas. “Obviously, the context was for action against the government of Iraq.”

Chesney conceded that the law was used for years afterward to justify continued U.S. operations in the country after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, but, he said, “We’ve been out for years. To go in there and attack ISIS—it’s really a fresh fight.”

Moreover, the administration has come out in favor of repealing the Iraq Authorization of Military Force—and Obama reiterated last week that he hasn’t changed his mind. That makes asserting it now, at best, inconvenient and at worst, highly hypocritical.

The White House could instead invoke the broader 2001 AUMF that authorized U.S. action against al-Qaida in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The main problem with that? Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has denounced ISIS for its conduct in Syria, where it has clashed with an al-Qaida backed group.

In addition, Chesney noted, the 9/11 AUMF was intended to warrant preemptive action against threats to the United States—and there has been little evidence that ISIS has America on its mind. The best thing for the administration’s legal position, he joked, is if al-Zawahiri issues a press release praising ISIS and hinting at reconciliation.

Ahem. Obama ordered military action against Moammar Qaddafi under the questionable “responsibility to protect” paradigm, which actually targeted the government of another country. That’s called “war,” in any other context, and yet not only did Obama not have authorization to conduct war against Libya, he never bothered to seek it after the expiration of the War Powers loophole the White House claimed for legitimization, either.

In this case, the R2P seems much less legally fraught. We are not going to war with the legitimate and recognized government of Iraq, but protecting it against a sack of its capital. And now our nominal ally in Iraq has formally requested the assistance, which allows for executive action. While James Oliphant notes that the WPA proviso about “clear and present danger to the security of the United States” may not be entirely clear with regard to ISIS, it’s also clear from intelligence reports that this group intends to conduct operations against the West at some point.

The time may be propitious for an attack on ISIS, which may have lost some momentum already:

Islamic militants attacked Iraq’s largest oil refinery late Tuesday, but were repelled by Iraqi security forces after an overnight battle, Iraqi officials said Wednesday.

The al Qaeda splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began their attack late Tuesday night, but fighting continued into Wednesday morning. There were unconfirmed reports that the militants had managed to gain control of much of the refinery compound, but in messages posted on their Facebook page, the Iraqi Special Operations force vehemently denied the claims.

Iraqi special forces, backed up by air support, destroyed an ISIS convoy and gunned down three ISIS snipers during a failed attempt by the group to break into the Baiji refinery, according to the special operations force, part of Iraq’s Interior Ministry which is in charge of security across the country.

Chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, later said government forces had repelled the attack and that 40 attackers were killed in fighting.

Operations at the sprawling complex were halted and its foreign staff evacuated on Tuesday shut down due to the threat.

This is probably an easy call for Obama to make. Air strikes are a lot more antiseptic than putting ground troops in harm’s way, and a lot more practical in terms of politics, logistics, and timing. It gives Obama a chance to take some action that will at least address the deep concerns from allies in the region about the lack of action and direction from Washington these days, too. Air strikes will also provide a positive impact on the situation and give Baghdad some room to maneuver politically and militarily. Plus, Congress is likely to rally around this limited intervention, which would provide Obama with political cover — if he’s smart enough to seek it. He didn’t in Libya and is still paying the political price for high-handing Congress and going it alone.