WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama meets with congressional leaders Wednesday about the deteriorating situation in Iraq, he’ll hear plenty of agreement that something must be done — but little consensus about what that should be.
Obama will meet with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at the White House for the first time since Sunni Muslim rebels started a lightning-fast march toward Baghdad.
They’ll report broad bipartisan agreement in Congress not to return a large U.S. military presence to Iraq to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorist group as it bears down on Baghdad, something Obama also rules out.
Many also want to push the Iraqi government out in favor of a more inclusive coalition, though it was unclear how fast that could happen and whether it would do anything to stop ISIL forces from attacking the capital.
After that, members of Congress disagree over the most-discussed options, including U.S. airstrikes or working with Iran to protect the Iraqi government.
And some congressional leaders are going to the White House apparently with few concrete ideas for Iraq.
Boehner, for example, said Tuesday that he wanted to hear what Obama planned, but he offered no idea of what he wants to do.
“The speaker expects the president to offer a coherent strategy to ensure that Iraq does not descend further into lawless barbarism,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman. “We spent years, vast sums of money and, most importantly, thousands of American lives to improve Iraq’s security and make America safer. Squandering that legacy would be a tragic mistake.”
Lawmakers split over the prospect of working with Iran, a Shiite Muslim-led government that’s eager to help the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who’s also a Shiite. The Obama administration said Monday that it would talk with Iran, but it ruled out any military cooperation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., suggested that the U.S. work with Iran, especially if Iran’s forces and diplomats could help safeguard the employees at the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
With the Sunni forces within 40 miles of Baghdad, Obama is deploying 275 U.S. military personnel to Iraq to provide support and security to U.S. interests there. Marine and Army troops have already moved into the embassy to bolster security.
“I know that the Iranian agenda for Iraq is different from ours, they are agents of discontent, they’re state sponsors of terror, but I live in the real world,” Graham said.
“I don’t want it to be said that Lindsey Graham closed a door to something that may have provided them security,” he said. “At the end of the day, if the president has to discuss with the Iranians, a dialogue with the Iranians to protect our people, do it.”
But Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday vehemently rejected U.S. cooperation with Iran on Iraq.
“Iranians were in Iraq during the entire time U.S. servicemen and -women were there,” Rogers said on MSNBC. “And the Department of Defense believes as many as 600 people may have been killed, U.S. blood on their hands through their actions in Iraq.”
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., agreed.
“I don’t see any benefit to coordinating anything with Iran, given that we’re fighting and we’ve got efforts to fight them in Syria and we’ve got a little nuclear proliferation issue that we are at the table negotiating,” he said.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, balked at the benefit of a U.S. air attack, predicting that it might do more harm than good.
“The president should be wary of calls to intervene militarily through an air campaign that will not affect the strategic balance on the battlefield, and is as likely to alienate the local population as it is to accomplish any tactical objective,” Schiff said.
“Our limited intelligence and the civilian nature of the battle space make the use of our air power even more problematic,” he said. “We do not want to be perceived as siding with Shia over Sunnis in another increasingly sectarian conflict, which would inevitably be the case if we should unintentionally cause Sunni civilian casualties.”
However, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for “airstrikes and … a few people on the ground that can orchestrate those airstrikes.”
Several lawmakers agreed that al-Maliki’s government is a huge problem that must be addressed, either by replacing it or forcefully steering it to become more inclusive of Sunnis.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said al-Maliki had to be replaced “with a coalition government that can be fair to Sunnis.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, “I think the president should insist on a new national unity government that is multi-sectarian … before even considering military assistance.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called the situation in Iraq “complicated” and placed the blame for it squarely on al-Maliki’s shoulders.
“It is an issue which has been made much, much worse by President Maliki’s unwillingness to include the Sunni minority, the moderate minority in the Sunni community, as full partners,” Hoyer said.
“The United States must carefully consider what actions we take that are effective short term and long term and that will lead to what has not happened, and that is a reconciliation between the moderate wings so that they can defeat the radical wings of their constituencies,” he said.