By John T. Bennett and Jeremy Herb - 11/16/11 12:35 AM EST
Republican lawmakers Tuesday slammed the Obama administration’s efforts to counter an increasingly defiant Iran, and hinted that they will make the Middle Eastern nation’s nuclear weapons program a major campaign issue.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCainJohn McCainNBC's Lester Holt emerges from debate bruised and partisan Pundits react: Clinton won first debate Overnight Defense: Debate night is here | Senate sets vote on 9/11 veto override | Kerry, McCain spar over Syria MORE (R-Ariz.) hit Obama hard Tuesday about his decision to remove all U.S. forces from Iraq. McCain said the move will make Iran a stronger power in the region, and branded the decision a “failure of leadership.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded recently that Iran is closer than ever to possessing a nuclear weapon.
Asked later by The Hill whether Republicans plan to use Iran’s apparent nuclear progress against Obama in the coming election, Chaffetz replied: “Oh, yes.
“When you have Gov. [Mitt] Romney saying this is Barack ObamaBarack ObamaDonald Trump, the Russian candidate Latinos matter: Donald Trump and Hillary missed huge in first debate? Trump camp tries to clarify climate position MORE’s biggest foreign-policy failure, this is an issue that certainly will be at the forefront of the 2012 contest,” Chaffetz said.
While polls show the staggering economy and high unemployment likely will dominate the 2012 election cycle, foreign-policy issues will play a role in voters’ decisions about which party will control Congress and the White House in January 2013.
Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Shutdown risk grows over Flint Senate poised to override Obama veto MORE (R-S.C.) suggested that Obama tailored his Iraq and Afghanistan withdrawal plans with his reelection bid in mind.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Graham pressed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about whether there were conversations at the White House about the political ramifications of removing U.S. troops from Iraq by Dec. 31.
One of Obama’s 2008 campaign promises was to end the Iraq war.
Graham also accused the White House of making political calculations in reducing forces in Afghanistan next year. “It’s no accident troops are coming home two months before the election,” he said.
Analysts and some Democratic members of Congress joined GOP lawmakers during the House subcommittee session in saying the tougher sanctions pushed by the Obama administration have not worked.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said the issue makes him feel like actor Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day,” because lawmakers routinely hear the same story: The IAEA says Iran is ever closer to possessing nuclear arms, but the administration holds fast that sanctions will work.
Still, Obama administration officials say there is time to keep up diplomatic and economic pressure — but they made clear that military force remains an option and they are arming friends in the region.
Officials said Tuesday that military strikes against Iranian nuclear arms facilities should be a “last resort,” but stressed that Washington is arming its allies in the region with ample combat power.
The administration continues to believe there is time to use diplomatic and economic maneuvers to combat Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Adam Szubin of the Treasury Department told the House subcommittee.
That’s because evidence shows Tehran is trying to advance its nuclear arms program to a point where it is close enough to “make a dash” toward fielding the world’s most deadly weapons, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl told the subcommittee.
But the Tehran regime has yet to reach a point where it feels it must make that decision, the administration officials said.
For that reason, “any discussion of military action should be … a last resort,” Szubin said.
Still, in written testimony, Kahl laid out a list of allies that happen to be longtime Iranian rivals — from Israel to Saudi Arabia to Iraq — to which Washington is selling weapons.
Also on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers charged that the president’s Iraq withdrawal decision will only embolden Iranian leaders.
McCain tangled with Panetta over the reasons U.S. troops are leaving Iraq.
McCain said the decision to withdraw all U.S. military forces is “a win for Iran.”
“The fact remains that Iran’s number one priority this year was to get all U.S. troops out of Iraq. They will now accomplish that goal,” McCain said. “Iran’s supreme leader has barely been able to contain his enthusiasm.”
Panetta countered that Iraq will be able to fight back against Iranian influence, while also meeting its own security needs.
“Iran has sought to weaken Iraq by trying to undermine its political processes and by facilitating violence against innocent Iraqi civilians and against American troops,” Panetta said. “And yet the strong, sovereign and self-relying Iraq we see emerging today has absolutely no desire to be dominated by Iran or by anyone else.”
McCain and Panetta engaged in a testy exchange over the Iraq decision, which McCain labeled a “failure of leadership.”
“The truth is, this administration was committed to complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and they made it happen,” McCain said.
Panetta responded: “Sen. McCain, that’s just simply not true. This is about negotiating with a sovereign country, an independent country. This is about their needs.”