In their first public remarks since Islamic insurgents stretching back to Syria overran much of Iraq, United States defense leaders told Congress that the Obama administration was assessing Baghdad's defenses and waiting for more intelligence about enemy forces before deploying any American military intervention to stop the advance.
But the blame for Iraq's devolution, they said, rests squarely with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's refusal to include competing political and sectarian factions.
Members of Congress reacted angrily to the administration's strategy of finger-pointing at Maliki, and at the pace of White House deliberations since last week. President Barack Obama met with congressional leaders late Wednesday, but in the morning, a slew of mostly conservative critics called again for swift military strikes against insurgents nearing Baghdad and criticized Obama for not securing an agreement to keep additional U.S. combat forces in Iraq after the war ended in 2011, which they claim could have helped buy time for the young Iraqi democracy to congeal and deter any renewed insurgency.
"Well, when we're not there, we're not there. And, I mean, I don't know what you would have expected the United States to do," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Wednesday, at a previously scheduled appearance before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that he was looking for a "more accurate intelligence picture" as to the identity of the advancing groups as they fight Iraqi forces and Kurdish militias.
"These forces are very much intermingled. It's not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking it," Dempsey said. In one example, he said, an Iraqi base was overrun but then retaken by friendly Kurdish fighters in short order. "In the course of about 36 hours, we had Iraqi Army units, we had ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant], and then we had the Peshmerga in that same facility."
Dempsey also confirmed that the Iraq government had requested air power.
Few senior U.S. military commanders and Washington political leaders have as close a tie to Iraq as Dempsey, who commanded the training of Iraqi forces. Dempsey said parts of two Iraqi army divisions and a major police unit "did, in fact, throw down their arms, and in some cases collude with, in some cases simply desert, in northern Iraq." He blamed the disarray on their lack of trust in the central government.
"Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists raising flags over Iraq's embattled cities triggers in me the same thing that runs through the minds of any veteran who served there," he said, "which is bitter disappointment that Iraq's leaders failed to unite for the good of their people."
Dempsey said he visited Baghdad last year and spoke to Maliki and Iraqi leaders about the Syrian war spilling into their country. The problem, he told them, was not in Syria but in their own political infighting and inability or unwillingness to unite Iraq against the coming insurgency.
"And in that year, the behavior was, for the most part, exactly counter to what you would probably try to do if you were trying to bring your people together: changing military leadership, cronyism, just all forms of sectarianism that have led us to where we are today," Dempsey told the panel.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., led questioning why the Pentagon did not already have strike options ready to go, knowing that intelligence leaders like former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn warned months ago that ISIL was advancing in Iraq. Hagel said those options were being presented Wednesday by the president to congressional leaders.
"Isn't that a little bit late?" Coats said. "Well, senator," Dempsey replied, "it's only late if you suggest that we could have stopped it in some way. And I think it's worth remembering the real threat in Iraq that is common to all of us is ISIL, this organization calledISIL, which, as you know, started off as al-Qaeda in Iraq, went to Syria, and is now back in Iraq. So this all started and stops with Iraq. And there is very little that could have been done to overcome the degree to which the government of Iraq had failed its people. That's what has caused this problem."
"We were surprised," added Hagel, "that the Iraqi divisions, specifically the ones that Gen. Dempsey talked about, just threw down their weapons. We had obviously, as Gen. Dempsey said — are always working options and scenarios."
"We can only do so much. We didn't have a presence in Iraq, as you know, for the very reason you mentioned, because the Iraqis would not give us the immunity and what we needed to get a SOFA."
"I don't know that the presence of U.S. military would have uniquely changed the problem," Dempsey said.
The U.S is now trying to decipher exactly which Shiite militias have joined Iraqi security forces defending Baghdad. "What is left of the Iraqi security forces? They seem to be holding a line that roughly runs from Baqubah north of Baghdad over to Fallujah."
But as Dempsey explained the outlook on the ground, on the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., continued his impassioned plea for immediate military strikes.
"It's the largest terrorist safe haven in history," McCain said of the Iraqi north now occupied by ISIL fighters, which threatens to "erase the gains that nearly 4,500 brave young Americans gave their lives to secure."
McCain argued that when Obama came to office, the surge ofU.S. troops "had succeeded. Iraq was not violent." he said. "We had won the war."
"The administration and its defenders are now scrambling to pin the blame for this catastrophic failure on anyone but themselves," he said.
McCain, responding to his own critics, nuanced his previous statements against Obama's national security team by saying that he criticized the Bush administration's mishandling of the Iraq war as early as 2003, and he called for
the firing of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. McCain said the U.S should call up retired Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who both supported the surge that helped turn the tide of the Iraq War. The "lion's share" of responsibility for Iraq's collapse, he said, falls on Maliki, "but the administration cannot escape its own responsibility."
In London on Wednesday, Petraeus broke his silence on Iraq and pointedly did not back McCain's eagerness for military re-intervention. "This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias, or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight," he said, according to the Spectator.
McCain read a long history of the end of the Iraq War, arguing that Obama's White House purposefully avoided multiple chances to negotiate with Iraqi factions to keep American troops in country. By the end of 2011, McCain argued, it was no longer politically palatable for Iraq's political leaders to ask American forces to stay. McCain said he believes the U.S.should have continued training Iraqis and maintaining a force that could lean on Iraqi's to unite.
"The Obama administration should have recognized after years of brutal conflict Iraqi leaders still lacked trust in one another and a strong U.S. role was required to help Iraqis broker their most politically sensitive decision," McCain said.
McCain also said he is not advocating for a large scale U.S.ground intervention.
"There is a need for immediate action," McCain pleaded. "I do not believe they can take Baghdad, but look at the places they have taken… there is no good option. The worst option is to do nothing," he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., followed McCain on the Senate floor to connect the Iraq crisis to 9/11. Rubio argued that if the U.S.had taken al-Qaeda more seriously and taken actions to "degrade" the group before 9/11, those attacks could have been prevented.
"What is happening today in Iraq and in portions of Syria is in many ways the exact same thing," Rubio argued. Rubio has made several efforts this year to stake a position as a national security player while struggling to gain support as a viable Republican presidential candidate in 2016. On Thursday, Rubio called Obama to "rally us around a plan" sooner rather than later.
"I know the president likes to go around saying the war is over, but no one told ISIL that," Rubio said