Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other GOP senators talk to reporters after the Senate Republican policy luncheon on Tuesday. McConnell and fellow Republican leaders were critical of President Barack Obama's handling of many issues, including the worsening situation in Iraq. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — When US President Barack Obama meets with congressional leaders at the White House Wednesday afternoon to discuss the situation in Iraq, there’s one thing — and perhaps one thing only — that he’ll be able to bank on: No one will demand a large US troop presence on the ground to help the government in Baghdad.
But that’s where agreement will likely end.
Even if there is no broad consensus on the path forward in Iraq, the meeting with Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, could still be considered a small mark of progress amid continuing criticism that the administration is shutting Congress out of its foreign policy deliberations.
Speaking on the Senate floor on Tuesday, McConnell called for the president to “quickly provide us with a strategy and plan that addresses the threat posed by the insurgency and the terrorist capabilities of [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS], and he must explain that new strategy.”
Boehner has accused the administration of “taking a nap” on the situation in Iraq, while a spokesman for the speaker echoed McConnell’s comments on Tuesday, saying he “expects the president to offer a coherent strategy to ensure that Iraq does not descend further into lawless barbarism.”
Part of that strategy will be the White House’s apparent decision to avoid direct American action for now, according to a Wall Street Journal story posted Tuesday evening. The report said Obama wants to avoid launching airstrikes in favor of addressing the political causes of Sunni unrest and trying to shore up the dispirited Iraqi military.
The meeting also comes at a delicate time politically for the president and his party as he begins the slide toward lame duck status and with midterm elections just a few months away.
In a sign of how much the ongoing violence in Syria and Ukraine — along with the blowback from the trade of five former Taliban leaders for US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — has affected the administration, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday night showed that the percentage of Americans approving of the president’s handling of foreign policy issues “has dropped to the lowest level of his presidency.”
Obama won just 37 percent of those polled when asked if he was doing a good job handling foreign affairs, while 57 percent disapproved, both records for his presidency.
The poll was taken before the violence in Iraq exploded last week.
On the other hand, another poll released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling showed that a mere 16 percent of those contacted support sending combat troops to Iraq, with 74 percent opposed.
While McConnell and Boehner are putting the onus on the president to come up with a workable solution to the Iraq crisis, other Republicans such as John McCain, have been more forceful in their comments. The Arizona senator surprising no one by coming out as a staunch proponent of hitting the ISIS fighters and their Iraqi Islamist allies hard.
He has called for “rapid, decisive US action to degrade ISIS and halt their offensive in Iraq,” though he has also stressed that he wouldn’t support the deployment of a large number of American ground troops.
McCain is slated to speak about Iraq with retired US Army Gen. Jack Keane — one of the driving forces behind the idea of the “surge” in Iraq — at the American Enterprise Institute Wednesday afternoon about an hour after the White House meeting begins.
On the other side of the aisle, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, Md., kept it vague on Tuesday, saying that when it comes to Iraq policy “we’re going to have to see what options are available to us to try to dissuade and defeat the proponents of terrorism.”
Likewise, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff, Calif., took note of the unintended consequences of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 13 years in warning the president an air campaign would likely “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.”
He cited the lack of on-the-ground intelligence and the fact that Islamist fighters can blend into the civilian population. “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” he said.
But as always, there are larger issues at work.
During a speech at the National Defense University in Washington on Tuesday, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers, Mich., laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the White House, and its decision not to intervene more forcefully in Syria.
“I believe that America’s lack of resolve to address decisively the threat posed by an imploding Syria will embolden dictators and terrorists around the world,” he said, contending that the Islamist fighters gaining ground in parts of Syria and Iraq “have taken advantage of the chaos to establish a safe haven from which to train and plan attacks, and they intend to eventually focus on western targets. This Disney World for jihad has brought the largest pool of al-Qaida fighters since 9/11 to Syria and has bled into Iraq. That represents as direct a threat to the United States as you will find.”
All of these issues will surely be hashed out Wednesday morning when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee about the 2015 budget request, a subject the House will debate on the floor late Wednesday morning as well. ■