Most Lawmakers MIA When It Comes to How to Deal With Iraq

A man displays Iraqi army body armour in front of an Iraqi army vehicle and other items of military kit, at the Kukjali Iraqi Army checkpoint, some 10km of east of the northern city of Mosul, on June 11, 2014, the day after Sunni militants iincluding fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran the city. Half a million people were estimated to have fled Iraq's second largest city, as Islamist militants tightened their grip after overrunning it and a swathe of other territory, patrolling its streets and calling for government employees to return to work. 
AFP/Getty Images
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
June 17, 2014, 10:19 a.m.

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.”

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