Lawmakers Attack Obama Administration’s Strategy in Iraq

Members of Congress doubt Iraqi government can root out terrorists.

National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
July 24, 2014, 10:53 a.m.

In its second day of testi­mony on Cap­it­ol Hill, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion tried once again to prove it has a handle on the situ­ation in Ir­aq, where a ter­ror­ist up­ris­ing has gained key strong­holds and driv­en tens of thou­sands of refugees to flee across its crum­bling bor­ders.


At a heated hear­ing Thursday with of­fi­cials from the State and De­fense de­part­ments, Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee mem­bers took turns pok­ing holes in the U.S. strategy, ask­ing a lit­any of ques­tions about the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s as­sump­tions and plans for hand­ling the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia.


Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez ques­tioned why the ad­min­is­tra­tion has faith that Ir­aq will form an ef­fect­ive “func­tion­al fed­er­al­ist” state as the U.S. en­vi­sions, par­tic­u­larly if Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki re­mains in power.


“Many say what is hap­pen­ing on the ground is ac­cel­er­at­ing to­wards a break­up of Ir­aq be­cause too many Ir­aqi com­munit­ies no longer trust the Ma­liki gov­ern­ment, and the ques­tion is wheth­er we can do any­thing to pre­vent it,” the New Jer­sey Demo­crat said.


Brett McGurk, the deputy as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State for Ir­aq and Ir­an, who just re­turned from Ir­aq, ar­gued that there is an “emer­ging con­sensus” around this mod­el of de­cent­ral­iz­ing power but keep­ing the state to­geth­er, “in which you re­cog­nize a very sub­stan­tial de­vol­u­tion of au­thor­it­ies to prin­ciples of loc­al se­cur­ity con­trol.”


Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ar­gued Wed­nes­day that U.S. in­terests are best served if Ir­aq does not break up in­to smal­ler eth­nic fac­tions.


But Men­en­dez ques­tioned wheth­er such as­pir­a­tions are real­ist­ic giv­en the un­stable se­cur­ity and polit­ic­al situ­ation.


“Can you even get to a fed­er­al­ist mod­el the way things are evolving in Ir­aq?” he asked. “If it ends up be­ing the prime min­is­ter is Ma­liki, how do you think that you keep this na­tion to­geth­er?… Isn’t the likely out­come of that to be more pos­sible to see a di­vided Ir­aq?”


McGurk stuck to his guns that the U.S. is not get­ting in­volved in wheth­er Ma­liki should stay or go, but he ac­know­ledged his con­tin­ued lead­er­ship would present chal­lenges. “It re­mains to be seen wheth­er the ex­ist­ing prime min­is­ter could build such a con­sensus, but that re­mains very much a ques­tion,” he said.


State and De­fense of­fi­cials said they have had the Is­lam­ic State on their radar for years but only picked up on the threat that Mo­sul would be taken days be­fore it was stun­ningly seized without Ir­aqi Se­cur­ity Forces put­ting up a fight. Par­tic­u­larly in light of such a se­cur­ity col­lapse, De­fense of­fi­cials are re­view­ing as­sess­ments of Ir­aqi Se­cur­ity Forces and the situ­ation on the ground with plans to up­date Obama soon on his mil­it­ary op­tions.


But Men­en­dez ar­gued that the com­mit­tee would be re­luct­ant to ap­prove any fu­ture arms sales to Ir­aq un­less the as­sess­ments are shared with Con­gress and can demon­strate that the Ir­aqi Se­cur­ity Forces are com­pet­ent, after watch­ing U.S. weapons fall so eas­ily in­to the hands of ter­ror­ists.


“Un­less you are go­ing to give us a sense of where the se­cur­ity forces are at, mov­ing for­ward, this chair is not go­ing to be will­ing to ap­prove more arms sales so that they can be aban­doned to go to the hands of those that we are ser­i­ously con­cerned about in terms of our own na­tion­al se­cur­ity,” he said.


Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ar­gued they are try­ing to ad­dress IS­IS’s ad­vance­ment in Ir­aq as a re­gion­al con­flict that threatens the broad­er area and are so­li­cit­ing the as­sist­ance of al­lies in the re­gion.


But sev­er­al com­mit­tee mem­bers cri­ti­cized the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of the situ­ation, par­tic­u­larly the lack of more pro­act­ive ac­tion to ad­dress the civil war in neigh­bor­ing Syr­ia, which has be­come a train­ing camp for IS­IS sui­cide bombers and a safe haven for ter­ror­ists.


“People on this com­mit­tee have been say­ing for like a year and half that when the time was right—when we could have taken steps in Syr­ia that could have pre­ven­ted this—they wer­en’t taken,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee, the pan­el’s rank­ing mem­ber.


Cork­er ad­ded that he ques­tions wheth­er Obama’s in­terest in send­ing $500 mil­lion to sup­port Syr­i­an rebels now amounts to too little too late.


“I now have got­ten to the point where I ques­tion, I hate to say it, how ef­fect­ive that’s go­ing to be at this point,” he said.

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