President Obama’s team of national security advisers is under attack on Capitol Hill for not foreseeing the collapse of Iraq’s army forces who have been routed by Sunni jihadists.
Republicans are calling for heads to roll, and Democrats have been slow to defend Obama’s national security team after a string of questionable performances.
Obama even took heat Thursday from the editorial page of The Washington Post, which asserted the “pretense” of Obama’s claim to have ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for the wholesale resignation of Obama’s national security team, starting with Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We need a new national security adviser. We need a new team. We need a new team that knows what America’s national security interests are and are more interested in national security than they are in politics,” he said on the Senate floor.
What might have sounded as an off-the-wall demand a week ago, didn’t seem so outlandish after 800 fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — a former affiliate of al Qaeda — routed 30,000 Iraqi soldiers to capture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Militants have also captured Tikrit and plan to march on Baghdad, the capital.
The masked fighters have overrun military bases, capturing weapons, ammunition and armored vehicles; plundered nearly half a billion dollars from banks; and freed hundreds of suspected and convicted terrorists from prisons.
In the span of a few days, the security gains that American and coalition military forces made over years of occupation, which cost 4,486 American lives and $2 trillion, are at risk of disintegrating.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) accused Obama and his national security team of failing to pay attention.
“It’s not like we haven’t seen over the last five or six months these terrorists moving in, taking control of western Iraq. Now they’ve taken control of Mosul. They’re 100 miles from Baghdad,” Boehner told reporters. “And what’s the president doing? Taking a nap!”
Some senior Democrats have been slow to defend Obama’s team nearly two weeks after it drew fire from allies on the Hill for freeing senior Taliban militants, including one who has already told relatives he plans to return to the battlefield, without advanced warning to Congress.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) declined to discuss Obama’s national security team amid growing Republican criticism.
“I’m not going to get into that,” she said.
But she warned the security situation in Iraq has become dire.
“I think we’re at a real point of decision. We can’t let this particular group walk in and [take over] the country because we will rue the day. They are the worst of the worst. They kill children; they kill with abandon,” she said. “I think they have to be stopped. Who does it and how it’s to be done, I think it’s for a good discussion.”
Feinstein declined to say whether U.S. troops should be sent to restore the peace but added, “everything has to be accessed.”
“It’s a big deal,” she said.
The speed at which the Iraqi government has lost control of the country has stunned lawmakers and appears to have surprised Obama’s advisers, as well.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, voiced concern that Obama’s national security team did not anticipate how quickly Iraq’s military would melt down in the face of a few hundred insurgents.
“These decisions are excruciatingly difficult, but the element of surprise involved in the Iraq military failures certainly gives me pause,” he said.
He said Obama needs to take control immediately.
“It’s dire and dangerous, and I have yet to see a proposal from the administration as to what the path forward is,” he said. “The administration needs to present us with a proposal that includes viable options that are realistic and effective.”
He ruled out sending ground troops and expressed skepticism about “other involvement in active military engagement.”
Critics have zeroed in on White House chief of staff Denis McDonough’s statement in 2011, when he then served as deputy national security adviser, claiming Iraq had become secure, stable and self-reliant.
“There’s no question this is a success,” he said.
Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said McDonough’s claim is “embarrassing.”
“I don’t think there’s a single element of that statement that would be true today,” he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) accused Republicans of trying to politicize a dangerous national security situation.
“I think the personal attacks on the president have backfired on Republicans. I think most people are sick of them. They want to know what the proposals are for action,” he said when asked if Obama’s team should have foreseen the crisis in Iraq.
But he struggled to justify McDonough’s 2011 statement.
“History has not shown that they were self-reliant, and I don’t think I would have made that same statement in 2011,” he said.