The Obama administration on Wednesday sought to temper lawmakers' expectations for a quick military response in Iraq while rejecting calls to oust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey fielded numerous questions about plans for Iraq during a Senate hearing on the FY2015 Defense spending bill.
Officials also briefed the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees in closed session, while President Barack Obama met with House and Senate leaders later in the afternoon.
Dempsey reassured lawmakers that "I share alarm about the future of Iraq" and said the administration is "developing a full range of options to stabilize the region."
"We're still clarifying what the situation is," Hagel told lawmakers chomping at the bit for a solution to staunch the flow of Sunni militants streaming toward Baghdad. "Options like airstrikes … there has to be a reason for that, there has to be an objective. Where do you go with those? What do they do to move the effort down the road for a political solution."
And he dismissed out of hand suggestions that the United States should try to remove Maliki from power, by working with his Iranian backers if need be.
"I think that most of us that have followed this are really convinced that the Maliki government has got to go if you want any reconciliation," Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at the hearing. "It seems to me, Maliki has to be convinced that it's in the greater interest of his country to retire.
"What is the administration thinking … on that subject?" Feinstein said. "Because that's the one place where Iran can be of help, if they want to."
Hagel didn't bite.
"The issue of whether Maliki should step aside or not, that's an Iraqi political decision and something we don't get into," he told Feinstein.
The noncommital response failed to satisfy Republicans and Democrats appalled by the image of US-trained Iraqi forces crumbling under pressure.
"Isn't it a little bit late?" said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. "The territory has already been lost. The cities have already been taken. US weapons have already been seized, the banks have already been robbed. Isn't it too late now to be sitting down and talking to members of Congress, basically saying, 'Let's look at the options?'"
Dempsey put the blame squarely on the Iraqi government. And, he said, only Maliki and other Iraqi leaders can fix things by bringing the country's warring sectarian factions together.
"It's only late if you suggest that we could have stopped this," Dempsey said. "This all started — and stops — with Iraq. There is very little that could have been done to overcome the degree to which the government of Iraq had failed its people. That's what has caused this problem."
He said military strikes were not a panacea, especially when territory is rapidly changing hands between the Shiite government, Sunni rebels and Kurdish self-defense forces.
"What I would recommend is that any time we use military force we use it for those things that are in our national interest once I'm assured we can use it responsively and effectively," Dempsey said. "These forces are very much intermingled. It's not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking it."
"Until we can actually clarify the intelligence picture, the options will continue to be built and developed and refined and the intelligence picture made more accurate — and then the president can make a decision."
House lawmakers got the same message. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., issued a statement after his committee's classified briefing declaring that the administration appears to be "struggling to respond to this urgent situation."
"During today’s briefing, Members of the Committee expressed grave concern over the threat posed to Iraqis, the region, and the national security interests of the United States, by this al-Qaeda off-shoot," Royce said. "Having failed to act months ago with drone strikes — as repeatedly requested by the Iraqi government — it is clear that the Obama Administration is struggling to respond to this urgent situation. Members of the Committee pressed back on the notion that Iran could be a ‘constructive’ partner. While the Administration continues to ‘review its options’ the threat from this al-Qaeda group grows greater and greater.”
Dempsey downplayed the numbers of Sunni extremists, telling Feinstein that Iraqi officials' estimate of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) sounded "high." He went on to provide some of the most detailed accounting of the events of recent days and confirmed for the first time that the Iraqis had asked for US air support.
"Two divisions and part of two, and one national police organization, did in fact throw down their arms and, in some cases, collude with [Islamists], in some cases simply desert, in northern Iraq," Dempsey testified. "And they did that … because they had simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair, equitable way that provided faith to everyone."
Hagel defended the idea of working with Iran to contain ISIS, which is also referred to as ISIL. Republicans in particular have rejected the idea, with hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a lone exception.
"Let's not forget that we went into Afghanistan … early on we had worked with the Iranians on that western border. There's some history here of sharing common interests," Hagel said. "I don't think these issues come neatly wrapped in geopolitical graduate school papers — they are complicated, they are intertwined with history."
He reiterated the administration's position that Maliki — not the United States — will play the decisive role in beating back ISIS.
"We presented Iraq with tremendous opportunities to govern themselves, defend themselves," he said. "But we can't dictate outcomes — it's up to the Iraqi people."
Obama during his meeting with congressional leaders "reviewed our efforts to strengthen the capacity of Iraq’s security forces to confront the threat from ISIL, including options for increased security assistance," according to a readout from the White House. "He asked each of the leaders for their view of the current situation and pledged to continue consulting closely with Congress going forward."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters after the meeting that "everybody seemed satisfied." And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the president indicated he did not feel he needed congressional approval for action at this time and would keep Congress informed.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also participated.