Senate Armed Service Committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, after attending a closed committee meeting on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)
The more the White House talks to Congress about Iraq, the less clear lawmakers are on what the path ahead there will be.
Republican lawmakers renewed their criticism of a lack of clear direction in President Obama’s foreign policy — specifically focused this time on the unfolding crisis in Iraq — following a briefing from military leaders Tuesday morning.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said administration officials “have no strategy, nor could they articulate a strategy” to counter the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the region.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he believes U.S. airstrikes will be needed to stop the insurgents’ advance, but said military leaders did not discuss that option.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he wasn’t sure what the point of the briefing was supposed to be.
Even administration supporters such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said they left the meeting without any solid answers on what to expect in the days ahead.
“If the American people are looking for some simple sound bite, it would be irresponsible to give one, because it’s complicated,” she said. “I think we have to be, and I think the administration is being, appropriately cautious and careful, but there is not one side to this all in the Middle East right now.”
The briefing by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the latest in a series of updates from the White House and Pentagon on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was part of the “robust coordination that exists” between the separate branches of government, White House press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
But instead of building support, the efforts seem to be raising additional questions — and criticism — about what the U.S. role in Iraq should be.
Already, several Hill Democrats have questioned Obama’s decision to send up to 300 service members into Iraq, saying the president needs to do a better job justifying the needs and parameters of their deployment.
That number doesn’t include other troops being sent to enhance security at American embassies and other key sites. In total, the Defense Department is already looking at sending up to 775 service members into the country to counter ISIL advances, a number that has raised additional questions about a growing military footprint there.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said initial assessment teams have been on the ground for almost three weeks now and are “nearing the end” of that phase of the mission.
“They have done most of the work, assessed most of the [Iraqi] units we asked them to,” he told reporters at a briefing Tuesday afternoon. “We need to let their work finish, the assessments will be finished, and leadership will move from there.”
Senators at the briefing earlier in the day said airstrikes were not discussed as a near-term option in Iraq, and Obama has publicly stated that he will not deploy combat troops back in the country.
But last week, Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon that without foreign military intervention, he thinks it is unlikely that the Iraqis will be able to recapture areas of their country that have been overrun by militants.
He also expressed pessimism on the political future of Iraq. “The first step in developing that campaign is determining whether we have a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to growing their country into something that all Iraqis will be willing to participate in,” Dempsey said. “If the answer to that is no, then the future is pretty bleak.”
White House officials have repeatedly said any international response will hinge on political reforms by Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which so far has offered little sign of embracing marginalized minority groups in the country.
On Monday, Earnest said the way Iraq’s problems can be solved “is pretty clear” despite the complexity of the situation.
“It will require difficult steps, and I don’t think anybody’s tried to minimize … the difficulty of making these kinds of decisions and reaching these kinds of agreements,” he said. “But reaching those agreements and making those difficult decisions are necessary for Iraq to survive.”
Lawmakers say they are still hopeful that clarity on those decisions comes sooner rather than later.