GOP leader: Obama may act in Iraq without signoff
President Barack Obama meets with, from left, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. Obama briefed leaders of Congress on US options for blunting an Islamic insurgency in Iraq. US officials say Obama is not yet prepared to move forward with strikes and is instead focused on increased training for Iraq's security forces, boosting Iraqi intelligence capacities and upgrading equipment. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama meets with, from left, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. Obama briefed leaders of Congress on US options for blunting an Islamic insurgency in Iraq. US officials say Obama is not yet prepared to move forward with strikes and is instead focused on increased training for Iraqs security forces, boosting Iraqi intelligence capacities and upgrading equipment. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, accompanied by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., tells reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, that the US should not be talking to Iran about a joint effort to help the Iraqi government battle insurgents who have been overrunning large swaths of that country, before heading to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama on the crisis. Boehner said that reaching out to Iran would be the wrong message to send U.S. allies in the Middle East, even as Iran is alleged to have sponsored terrorism in that region. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., arrives for a meeting of the House Republican Conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, as he and other candidates vying for House GOP leadership posts make their pitches to the rank-and-file in the tumultuous aftermath of House Majority Leader Eric Cantors sudden loss last week in his Virginia primary race. With House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the strong favorite to become the new majority leader, an intense intramural clash has emerged for the whip post between Rep. Scalise, who runs a conservative faction of lawmakers in the Republican Study Committee, and Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 17, 2014, after a Democratic caucus meeting. President Barack Obama will meet with Congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the turmoil in Iraq. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., right, and Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., left, walk through a basement corridor on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday June 18, 2014, to a meeting of the House Republican Conference where candidates vying for House GOP leadership posts are making their pitches to the rank-and-file in the tumultuous aftermath of House Majority Leader Eric Cantors sudden loss last week in his Virginia primary race. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 17, 2014, after a Republican strategy session. President Barack Obama will meet with Congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the turmoil in Iraq. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Obama and congressional leaders believe he does not need authorization from Congress for some steps he might take to quell the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency sweeping through Iraq, the Senate’s top Republican and Capitol Hill aides said after the president briefed senior lawmakers yesterday.
Still, the prospect of the president sidestepping Congress raises the potential for clashes between the White House and rank-and-file lawmakers, particularly if Obama should launch strikes with manned aircrafts or take other direct U.S. military action in Iraq. Administration officials have said airstrikes have become less a focus of recent deliberations but have also said the president could order such a step if intelligence agencies can identify clear targets on the ground.
Obama huddled in the Oval Office for more than an hour to discuss options for responding the crumbling security situation in Iraq with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
Speaking to reporters as he returned to the Capitol, McConnell said the president “indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take.”
Pelosi concurred with the president, saying in a statement after the meeting that Obama does not need “any further legislative authority to pursue the particular options for increased security assistance discussed today.” She did not specify what options were discussed.
An administration official said it was the leaders who suggested Obama already had existing authorities to take additional action in Iraq without further congressional authorization. The official downplayed the notion that Obama agreed with that assessment, saying only that the president said he would continue to consult with lawmakers.
The White House has publicly dodged questions about whether Obama might seek congressional approval if he decides to take military action. Last summer, Obama did seek approval for possible strikes against Syria, but he scrapped the effort when it became clear that lawmakers would not grant him the authority.
However, administration officials have suggested that the president may be able to act on his own in this case because Iraq’s government has requested U.S. military assistance.
“I think it certainly is a distinction and difference worth noting,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday of the comparisons to the Syrian situation.
In addition, an authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, passed by Congress in 2002, is still on the books and could potentially be used as a rationale for the White House acting without additional approval. Before the outburst of violence in Iraq, Obama had called for that authorization to be repealed.
Some lawmakers were outraged when Obama launched military action in Libya in 2011 with minimal consultation with Congress and no formal authorization from Capitol Hill. More recently, some in Congress have complained that the White House did not consult on final plans for releasing five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for freeing detained American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
In a diplomatic tour de force, Vice President Joe Biden spoke yesterday with Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, its Sunni parliamentary speaker and the president of Iraq’s self-ruled northern Kurdish region. Biden, who was traveling in Latin America, praised all three leaders for the participation of their respective communities in a televised show of unity against the group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the White House said.
White House officials offered no timeline yesterday for how soon Obama might decide on how to respond to the fast-moving militants from ISIL, which has seized Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq as the country’s military melted away.
Obama’s decision-making on airstrikes has been complicated by intelligence gaps that resulted from the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, which left the country largely off-limits to American operatives. Intelligence agencies are now trying to close gaps and identify possible targets that include insurgent encampments, training camps, weapons caches and other stationary supplies, according to U.S. officials.
Officials also suggest that the U.S. could more easily identify targets on the ground if Obama would send in additional American trainers to work with Iraqi security forces. Obama is considering that possibility, the officials say, though he has ruled out sending troops for combat missions.
The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe classified details and private discussions by name.
Obama is certain to face resistance from congressional Democrats if he launches any major military response to the crisis in Iraq. Two House Democrats – John Garamendi of California and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii – said yesterday they would offer an amendment to the defense spending bill that would require congressional approval before any sustained military action in Iraq.
The House is debating the defense bill and is scheduled to finish it this week.
Beyond airstrikes, the White House has been considering plans to boost Iraq’s intelligence about the militants and, more broadly, has been encouraging the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to become more inclusive.
Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority has long complained of discrimination by the government and security forces. The Obama administration has said that without long-term political changes, any short-term military solutions would be fleeting.
“The entire enterprise is at risk as long as this political situation is in flux,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel yesterday. He added that some Iraqi security forces had backed down when confronted by the militants because they had “simply lost faith” in the central government in Baghdad.
Republicans continued to insist that Obama bears the blame for allowing the insurgency to strengthen because of his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. Washington and Baghdad failed to reach a security agreement that would have allowed American forces to stay longer.
“What’s happening in Iraq is a direct result of the president’s misguided decisions,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and a Marine reservist who served two combat tours in Iraq. “Militarily, the U.S. won in Iraq, but the hard-fought and hard-earned gains of our servicemen and women have been politically squandered by the president and his administration.”
Despite withdrawing from Iraq, the U.S. has a range of ground, air and sea troops and assets in the region. There are six warships in the Persian Gulf, including the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and the amphibious transport ship USS Mesa Verde, which is carrying about 550 Marines and five V-22 Osprey hybrid aircraft.
There are about 5,000 U.S. soldiers across the Iraqi border in Kuwait as part of a routine rotational presence, several Air Force aircraft capable of a full range of missions, and intelligence gathering and surveillance assets, including drones, in the region.