WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama expressed skepticism about launching airstrikes on terrorist targets in Iraq during an meeting with congressional leaders on Wednesday.
According to an aide with knowledge of the meeting, the president cautioned that targeted airstrikes would be difficult to quickly execute against the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISIS, and the Levant, or ISIL, the Sunni militant group that has terrorized much of western Iraq. To ensure that an attack would work, Obama told attendees, the U.S. needs stronger intelligence concerning the whereabouts of ISIL members.
Obama also had concerns that airstrikes would cause civilian causalities and may fail to change political problems in Iraq that are in large part undermining the country's stability.
The president, the aide said, didn't rule out airstrikes “indefinitely.” Instead, he portrayed them as “not an imminent option,” according to the aide.
The White House did not immediately answer requests for confirmation. The New York Times' John Hardwood cited a congressional aide as saying that Obama told leaders that manned airstrikes were not a viable option. The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration was skittish about airstrikes in a story on Tuesday.
While it is noteworthy that the administration offered these concerns in private discussions, the president's skepticism about the viability of an air attack on ISIL is not out of the mainstream. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces, expressed such doubts in a congressional hearing on Wednesday. Members of Congress have offered similar opinions. Notably, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has said that any further U.S. military intervention into Iraq needs to be accompanied by political change in the country in order to have long-lasting impact.
The administration seems to be heading down that route. According to a Wall Street Journal report on Wednesday night: “The Obama administration is signaling that it wants a new government in Iraq without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, convinced the Shiite leader is unable to reconcile with the nation's Sunni minority and stabilize a volatile political landscape.”
According to the White House, Vice President Biden spoke with Maliki on Wednesday (along with other Iraqi political leaders), and “stressed the need for national unity in responding to the ISIL threat against all Iraqi communities, for coordination on security issues going forward, and for moving forward with urgency in forming a new government under the constitution.”
The president’s meeting with congressional leaders on Wednesday included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The readout of the meeting provided by the White House states that the president “reviewed our efforts to strengthen the capacity of Iraq’s security forces to confront the threat from ISIL, including options for increased security assistance.” The statement made no mention of the consideration of airstrikes.
In his own readout of the meeting, Reid pointedly noted, ”the President said he is not currently considering actions that would require Congressional approval.”