The crumbling situation in Iraq has made President Obama an easy target, but aside from a few outspoken hawks, most members of Congress are at a loss about what action the U.S. should take or even what options should be considered.
Several lawmakers on Tuesday dodged or could not answer questions about what potential U.S. responses should be on the table to address the Islamic insurgency destabilizing Iraq. And even though lawmakers, by and large, have no idea what a plan should look like, they want to see one from Obama.
"I'd like to hear a plan from the president," said Sen. John Cornyn, the minority whip, who initially tried to blow off questions on Iraq by saying he was in a "big hurry."
"I mean, the president is the commander in chief," the Texas Republican said. "He created the mess by pulling the plug on the U.S. presence there, so it's unfortunately going to take more than what he's committed so far, which is 275 people."
When asked if he wanted to see additional troops sent, Cornyn said vaguely, "It's going to take more—more of everything."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he didn't know off-hand what options should be considered and didn't want to say something off the cuff that he would regret later.
"I don't know; I'm in a hurry to vote," he said. "I usually get in trouble when I'm running to the elevator and my mind's on something else when I'm asked something serious—worthy of serious conversation."
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire also shirked opining on options. "Guys, can I please walk?" she said to reporters.
Democrats generally had no more detailed proposals to offer.
Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, stopped, exhaled deeply and shook his head "no" when asked about what the options are in Iraq.
"All bad," said the Illinois lawmaker. "Seriously, they are not good. There are not a lot of viable options at this point. The president is trying to find some way short of committing American troops to stop this violence, and it's going to be difficult."
Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said he was looking forward to hearing the administration's ideas and would have tough questions when he did.
"I'm really anxious to hear what the president presents to us," he said. "I think the way this process works, he presents options, we ask tough questions and decide what to do.… I'm going to have some hard questions when the options are presented."
Some do have ideas, but they are few and scattered.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona is calling for air strikes. Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, is calling for surveillance, intelligence, and arms sales. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce is pushing for drone strikes. And GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia is applauding Obama's decision to send 275 troops to secure the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and saying that embassy security should be made a top priority.
Analysts said lawmakers are at loss because there are no clear indications of what would improve the situation quickly, so the most politically expedient move is to demand answers and call for leadership.
"It's a hard problem, and there is a certain amount of fairness in letting people just hold the president accountable because, … to some extent, what's happening in Iraq is a reflection of things that happened under President Obama," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy with the Brookings Institution.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow in national security at the Center for American Progress, said that lawmakers know that picking an option could backfire both politically and from a policy perspective.
"The problem is that you don't have any good options," he said.
For example, Korb pointed out that the flip side of calling for airstrikes is a concern about the quality of intelligence on the ground, which could precipitate collateral damage. Additionally, lawmakers have pause about defending the Shiites in a Sunni majority world. Not to mention calling for sending boots back on the ground after so many years of war fatigue would be deadly unpopular with voters.
"When you take a look at the options, they are no good, and a lot of people are saying, 'Don't just stand there, do something.' But nobody has a concrete plan," Korb said. "So that's the thing: You want to do something, but anything you are going to do is going to cost you more in the long run, and you know the majority of the American people don't want anything to be done."
This article appears in the June 18, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.