WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama believes he does not need authorization from Congress for any steps he might take to quell the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency sweeping through Iraq, the Senate’s top Republican said after the president briefed senior lawmakers Wednesday.
The prospect of the president sidestepping Congress sets up a potential new clash between the White House and lawmakers, particularly if Obama should launch airstrikes 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 over an hour to discuss options for responding to the crumbling security situation in Iraq with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
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.”
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 Wednesday 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 Before the outburst of violence in Iraq, Obama had called for that authorization to be repealed.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.
White House officials offered no timeline Wednesday for how soon Obama might decide on how to respond to the fast-moving militants from the group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, 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 manor military response to the crisis in Iraq. Two House Democrats – John Garamendi of California and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii – said Wednesday 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 Wednesday. 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, R-Calif., 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.