As bombs fall in Iraq, U.S. leaders split on next step

Last Updated Aug 8, 2014 3:54 PM EDT

President Obama's decision to authorize targeted air strikes at militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was put into action on Friday morning, when the first American bombs struck a militant convoy heading toward Erbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reported Friday that several more strikes have been launched in the area around Erbil. Those later strikes, which were aimed at the same militants targeted Friday morning, were attended by reports of ISIS casualties.

The president explained the decision to authorize strikes Thursday night, saying they would protect American personnel at the consulate in Erbil.

"What you see is the president reacting to a very dangerous situation," explained CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. "You had [ISIS] forces beginning to threaten...Kurdistan, and in particular Erbil, where you have American personnel bunkered."

The president also said the strikes would "help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death."

ISIS has targeted religious minorities including Christians and the Yazidi, a religious group with ties to Zoroastrianism. An estimated 15,000 of them are trapped on a mountaintop near Sinjar with no food or water, afraid to descend into ISIS-held territory where they might be killed.

"The crisis of the Yazidis trapped on the mountain...being surrounded by [ISIS] presents a humanitarian disaster that I think the administration had to react to, with the Iraqi government asking for help," explained Zarate.

Reaction to the strikes from the American political class was predictably split. Members of both parties cautiously welcomed the action, but Republicans urged Mr. Obama to hit the gas pedal and Democrats advised him to keep his foot on the brake.

"The president's authorization of airstrikes is appropriate, but like many Americans, I am dismayed by the ongoing absence of a strategy for countering the grave threat ISIS poses to the region," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement on Friday after the first bomb was dropped. "Vital national interests are at stake, yet the White House has remained disengaged despite warnings from Iraqi leaders, Congress, and even members of its own administration. Such parochial thinking only emboldens the enemy and squanders the sacrifices Americans have made."

Some Republicans worried that the proposed action would not be enough to turn the momentum against the insurgents.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the Daily Beast on Friday that the air strikes were only "pinpricks" that would prove "almost meaningless."

"It's almost worth than nothing because I fear the president is threatening and then he won't follow through," said McCain. "It's the weakest possible response and we cannot allow them to take Erbil. What [the administration has] done so far is almost meaningless."

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., welcomed the airstrikes Friday on CNN, but he said the U.S. was only "putting off the inevitable" by engaging in a limited fashion.

"I support the airstrikes. That is important," King said. "But [Obama] should not be taking anything off the table. And by doing what he's done, over and over again, saying he's not going to do this, he's not going to do that and we're not going to get dragged into a war, he's sending a false signal, he's encouraging the enemy, he's dispiriting our allies and he's just putting off the inevitable."

Zarate said the strikes were a "first step" in halting the advance of ISIS, but he added, "Will they be enough? I don't think so."

"If the U.S. is serious about pushing ISIS back, it can," he said. "The real question for the administration is: 'What is the policy? What is the strategy?'"

Democrats urged the president to ensure the air strikes don't become a preface to deeper military involvement in Iraq's civil war.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday night it was "appropriate" for the president to launch air strikes at ISIS, but she added, "I was pleased by the President's continued assurances that he will not send U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq."

She urged Iraq's political leaders to pursue reconciliation, stressing that "there is no American military solution" to the fighting there.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sounded a similar note in his own statement on Friday, saying he supports the president's "decision to launch air strikes as long as no combat forces are on the ground."

"These air strikes are the correct action for our national security," said Reid. "They will protect American interests and save lives in Iraq."

Zarate predicted the split political reaction would continue, saying the president would likely be "praised and whipsawed" by members of both parties for his decision to deploy American air power in Iraq.

"He'll be whipsawed by those who don't think this is enough, that he's constraining American strategy and interests too much -- why aren't we trying to defeat the Islamic state? Why aren't we doing more to push back?" Zarate said. "He'll also be hit by those who say...'Why are we intervening at all? This isn't our fight.'"

The strikes on Friday morning represented a significant escalation of America's involvement in the bloody civil conflict. As ISIS gathered strength over the last few months, the U.S. stepped up its nonlethal assistance to the Iraqi government. And at the end of June, Mr. Obama sent approximately 300 troops to Iraq to train and advise Iraq's army, though they were not to be deployed in combat. An additional 450 U.S. personnel followed shortly thereafter.

The arrival of those advisers marked the first time U.S. troops touched Iraqi soil since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces following America's eight-year war there.

And despite the president's assurance that America will not put boots on the ground in Iraq, Zarate wondered about the endgame of the strikes launched Friday.

"What is the intent of U.S. intervention?" he asked. "Beyond just protection of U.S. interests, is it protection of Kurdistan writ large? Is it the ability to preserve the cohesion of the Iraqi state, or is it the ultimate defeat and dislodging of [ISIS] itself? The administration has not defined that last dimension as their goal, but I think now that the U.S. is engaged, even if only minimally, you have to start asking that question."

  • Jake Miller

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