WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama briefed top congressional leaders Wednesday on the administration’s plans to counter insurgents in Iraq, with the White House saying he’s only ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat.
The meeting – the first with congressional leaders since Sunni Muslim rebels began seizing Iraqi cities on a march toward Baghdad _ came as the Iraqi government asked for military airstrikes. A White House statement on the meeting said Obama reviewed “options for increased security assistance,” but did not elaborate.
Administration officials are considering possible airstrikes to aid the Iraqis, but White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called potential military action only “a component” of the options Obama is weighing.
“Ultimately the solution that is needed is an Iraqi one,” Carney said. “We can’t be in a situation where the United States and our military forces are the sole guarantor of stability in Iraq.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a statement after the meeting, criticizing Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2011 and warning that the instability unleashed in Iraq could be repeated in Afghanistan, as the U.S. plans to end its 13-year combat mission by the end of this year.
“Unfortunately, Iraqi security forces are now less capable than when the president withdrew the entirety of our force without successfully negotiating a remaining U.S. presence capable of preserving our gains and mentoring our partners,” McConnell said.
Former President George W. Bush signed the agreement in December 2008 that set the withdrawal clock in motion, but Republicans have criticized Obama for failing to secure an agreement for some troops to stay – an agreement opposed by the Iraqis.
Other Republicans accused the administration of moving too slowly, noting that Iraq has been asking for airstrikes or drone strikes against the insurgent group since last August.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. _ who met Wednesday with Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily – said the two shared a “mutual concern that the White House has denied drone strike requests as ISIS has advanced in broad daylight.”
Senior State Department officials briefed committee members behind closed doors, but Royce warned that “while the administration continues to ‘review its options’ the threat from this al Qaida group grows greater and greater.”
Republicans also pushed back at the administration’s contention that talks with Iran could aid the U.S.
“I can imagine just what our friends in the region, our allies will be thinking by reaching out to Iran at a time when they continue to pay for terrorists and foster terrorism not only in Syria, in Lebanon, but in Israel as well,” Boehner said after the House Republicans’ weekly conference meeting.
But Carney suggested that the talks, which occurred this week on the sidelines of a meeting in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear program, were unlikely to reoccur anytime soon.
Carney said U.S. officials were considering how to best deal with the imminent threat, how to build the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to fight the insurgents and how to encourage Iraq’s leaders to put aside their differences – a possibility many observers say is unlikely.
Carney called a more inclusive Iraqi government “essential” to U.S. decision making.
“The government in our view needs to move forward in a way that recognizes that there is a shared interest in all of Iraq peoples joining together in the effort to combat the threat ,” he said.
McConnell told reporters upon return to the Capitol that Obama said he didn’t need congressional approval for the steps that he might take. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she agreed with Obama’s assessment that he wouldn’t need “any further legislative authority” to pursue what she said was “increased security assistance.”
Carney wouldn’t say if Obama would go to Congress before launching strikes – as he had prepared to do in Syria last summer. But he noted that the situations are different, as the government of Iraq has requested the airstrikes.
The situation touched off a bout of particularly partisan finger pointing as former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz Cheney, blasted Obama’s handling of foreign policy in a Wall Street Journal editorial and announced the launch of a new advocacy group.
In the editorial, Cheney, a key architect of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, wrote that “rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”
Asked to respond, Carney – who was delivering his last news briefing – deadpanned, “Which president was he talking about?”
Carney added that “it’s pretty clear that President Obama and our team here have distinctly different views on Iraq from the team that led the United States to invade Iraq back in 2003.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who voted in 2002 to give former President George W. Bush the authorization to go to war, had a harsher retort, calling the Iraq War ‘the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the country.”
“Being on the wrong side of Dick Cheney is to be on the right side of history,”Reid said.