Bergdahl, Benghazi, and Now Iraq: Republicans Renew Attacks on Obama’s Foreign Policy

Do these issues have legs for Republicans? “Very long legs,” says Rep. Devin Nunes.

An Iraqi Kurdish security guard (Peshmerger) stands guard as Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. 
AFP/Getty Images
Billy House
June 12, 2014, 4:22 p.m.

With an ar­sen­al that in­cludes Bowe Ber­g­dhal, Benghazi, and now the un­fold­ing events in Ir­aq, House Re­pub­lic­ans are dig­ging in for a re­lent­less mul­ti­front, elec­tion-year mes­saging siege against the White House over for­eign policy.

“I’m sure Demo­crats will try to blame Re­pub­lic­ans for go­ing too far,” Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz said.

But point­ing to Ir­aq, where Is­lam­ic rebels have taken wide swaths of ter­rit­ory and ma­jor Ir­aqi cit­ies, Chaf­fetz said it will be dif­fi­cult to sug­gest polit­ic­al ex­ploit­a­tion in Re­pub­lic­an ef­forts to high­light con­cerns over the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s for­eign policy fail­ures or in­ac­tions.

“What we’re see­ing play out on TV is sad,” said Chaf­fetz, the Utah Re­pub­lic­an who chairs the Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Sub­com­mit­tee.

In­deed, even be­fore these latest events in Ir­aq, House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers had been hud­dling in re­cent days over a long-term strategy re­gard­ing the con­tro­ver­sial ex­change on May 31 of Army Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl for five Taliban pris­on­ers trans­ferred from the U.S. pris­on at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

“Not only is it a win­ner be­cause it was hor­rible for­eign policy,” said House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Mc­Caul, but it is an is­sue car­ry­ing a shelf life way bey­ond the rest of this midterm elec­tion year, he said.

There are a lot of ele­ments for law­makers to cov­er in the Ber­g­dahl con­tro­versy, Mc­Caul said, in­clud­ing the risks of ne­go­ti­at­ing with ter­ror­ists, why Con­gress wasn’t kept in the loop, and wheth­er this swap sig­nals plans by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­lease all pris­on­ers and close the Guantanamo pris­on over con­gres­sion­al ob­jec­tions.

“You know me, I’m pretty much more of a na­tion­al se­cur­ity kind of guy and I don’t really en­gage in a lot of par­tis­an polit­ics,” said Mc­Caul. But still, he said, “I think this prob­ably has more legs than any oth­er story I’ve seen.”

Ad­ded to the mix, said Rep. Tom Cole, is that “most Demo­crats I’ve talked to feel pretty much the same way as most Re­pub­lic­ans — the White House on this has man­aged to di­vide it­self from every­body else.” The Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an also noted most pub­lic polling shows that people are won­der­ing: “Why did you do this; why did you do it this way? I think really people really are up­set.”

“And I’ve got to tell you that when I am at home in the dis­trict, this is one that crosses party lines,” Cole said.

Two seni­or House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship aides con­firmed the closed-door strategy ses­sions have fo­cused on how to seize on the Ber­g­dahl swap. The con­clu­sion is that the con­tro­versy should be a fo­cus for the rest of this year and bey­ond. “It’s hu­mong­ous — when you see the D’s that are ticked off — yes, we’ve been spend­ing a lot of time on it. Lead­er­ship’s been spend­ing a lot of time on it,” said one aide.

He said the mes­sage to mem­bers so far is to fo­cus on the idea of failed lead­er­ship by the ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the ques­tions of wheth­er this a policy change and are we now deal­ing with ter­ror­ists where we haven’t be­fore, and does this make Amer­ica safer?

There is one pos­sible down­side, the aide said.

“We’ve just been en­cour­aging folks to not get in­to the de­tails of the case, spe­cific­ally,” he said, mean­ing the cir­cum­stances of Ber­g­dahl’s 2009 cap­ture in Afgh­anistan, his be­ha­vi­or, and wheth­er he should be tried as a desert­er or for be­ing AWOL for abandon­ing his post in a war zone. “We’ll let the smart people fig­ure that out,” the aide said.

While hear­ings clas­si­fied and pub­lic were held this week in the Sen­ate and House, House Re­pub­lic­ans say this is just the be­gin­ning of their in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the ex­change deal. But lead­er­ship aides say there will be no spe­cial se­lect com­mit­tee ap­poin­ted.

“We already have one of those,” said the aide, with a smile, re­fer­ring to the new Benghazi se­lect com­mit­tee cre­ated to in­vest­ig­ate the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse and oth­er activ­it­ies tied to the Sept. 11, 2012, ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Amer­ic­ans dead. Aides say that com­mit­tee’s work is ex­pec­ted to go well past the end of this year — and pos­sibly deep in­to 2015. The House has even ap­proved over­seas travel by the com­mit­tee and its staff.

Mean­while, as events in Ir­aq are un­fold­ing, Speak­er John Boehner and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans were re­new­ing their at­tacks on an­oth­er front — sug­gest­ing that the ad­vances by Is­lam­ic mil­it­ants in that coun­try have proved their warn­ings ac­cur­ate about what would hap­pen after the Obama-ordered troop with­draw­al in 2011.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen this prob­lem com­ing for over a year,” Boehner said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence. “And it’s not like we haven’t seen over the last five or six months the ter­ror­ists mov­ing in, tak­ing con­trol of west­ern Ir­aq.”¦ What’s the pres­id­ent do­ing? Tak­ing a nap?”

Rep. Dev­in Nunes, a mem­ber of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said he be­lieves the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion viewed its troop draw­down, and bring­ing a POW home in a swap with ter­ror­ists, as moves that “would make every­body happy, and also sat­is­fy their left-wing base.”

“But they mis­cal­cu­lated,” he said. Do these is­sues have legs for Re­pub­lic­ans? Nunes replied: “Very long legs.”

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