It’s time for a reality check on Iraq and the broader fight against the Islamic State.
The issues were sharply laid out last Wednesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. policy and strategy in the Middle East when several Republican and Democratic members with military service backgrounds critically questioned Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey about the Obama administration’s approach.
If you sat through the session, which went on for hours, or waded through the transcript as I did later, you got statements that began like this from six-term legislator Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who prefaced his critical questioning of President Obama’s Iraq policy by asking, “What are we doing here since we don’t have a strategy?”
Kline was employing a bumper-sticker version of Obama’s rambling answer June 8 to a reporter’s question about the administration’s response to the Islamic State’s recent takeover of Ramadi, about 68 miles west of Baghdad.
Obama first described how he was waiting to share with the public the Pentagon’s new, post-Ramadi plans to train and equip additional forces in that primarily Sunni area.
The president explained, “We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis, as well, about how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place. And so the details of that are not yet worked out.”
Obama’s use of “complete strategy” instead of saying “tactical plans” for this training element of his existing Islamic State strategy gave his critics an opening that Kline was happy to use.
That may be partisan politics.
But the lawmaker is no amateur in military affairs.
A retired Marine Corps colonel after a 25-year career, he had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, a personal military aide to Presidents Carter and Reagan, and from 1992 to 1993 commanded Marine aviation in Somalia for Operation Restore Hope, the United Nations humanitarian operations in that African country. In addition, he has a son who has served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“My question,” Kline directed at Dempsey, “is where are we in Iraq today? Are we winning? Are we losing? Is it a stalemate? Is it a quagmire? What is Iraq today?”
Dempsey, who has become more outspoken in his final months as chairman, responded, “Let’s talk about the personal pronoun WE [emphasis added]. This has to be about THEM [emphasis added] . . . So if you’re asking is the United States winning, that’s the wrong question.”
Kline insisted, “We’ve got soldiers there. We’ve got a commitment there. . . . We’re flying strikes there . . . are we winning or losing?”
The administration, from the president on down, has been trying, apparently without success, to make Congress and the public understand that it is up to the Iraqis themselves to win the war and that Americans cannot do it for them.
Dempsey, who has had major commands in Iraq and understands the country well, tried to explain that the United States and its allies are in Iraq to train and arm Iraqi security forces including the Kurdish peshmerga and the Sunni tribes.
It is up to them to defeat the threat of the Islamic State, “because frankly, that’s the only way it will be resolved,” Dempsey said.
Rep. Mark Takai (D-Hawaii), a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii National Guard who as a medical officer was deployed in 2009 to the Middle East as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, got Carter to expand on Dempsey’s statement by asking, “Where do we draw the line on American involvement in this conflict?”
Carter answered, “The essence of the strategy is not to have U.S. forces substitute for capable and motivated local forces but to have U.S. and coalition forces enable those [local Iraqi] forces. . . . That’s the only way to get a lasting result.”
In a reference to the earlier invasion of Iraq during the Bush administration, Carter added, “That’s the reason why our strategy is not to put in 100,000 American troops.”
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) served four tours as a Marine Corps infantry officer, including two as an assistant to Gen. David Petraeus. He questioned whether there was an enduring political plan to accompany the training so “we don’t find ourselves sending troops back again five years from now.”
Carter said the first effort of the Obama strategy was bringing about “an Iraqi government that will not behave the way [former Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki’s government did,” which was to promote Shia dominance at the expense of Sunnis and Kurds.
When Moulton asked what the United States was “doing specifically to counter Iranian political influence on the ground in Iraq,” Carter responded, “We . . . made clear to [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider al-]Abadi and all parties there . . . that we are not going to support militias or Shia forces supported by Iran . . . that are not under the control of the Iraqi government.”
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) a former Army and Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq as a civil affairs officer from 2005 to 2006, said he felt “there ought to be some U.S. military personnel forward with Iraqi forces” because when he was in Iraq, Americans who joined in patrols “really emboldened the confidence of those Iraqi soldiers.”
Dempsey shot back, “I would not recommend that we put U.S. forces in harm’s way simply to stiffen the spine of local forces. If their spine is not stiffened by the threat of ISIL [the Islamic State] on their way of life, nothing we do is going to stiffen their spine.”
Tough responses to tough questions, which is what you want at such hearings — if only they reached a broader audience.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.