Americans are tired of war. For the 17 members of Congress who served in Iraq, that means watching helplessly as the cities they fought for fall once more to extremists.
Militants believed to be associated with al-Qaida overtook Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, on Tuesday. The group then seized Tikrit, hometown of former President Saddam Hussein, on Wednesday.
Three Republican congressmen who served in Iraq—Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Doug Collins of Georgia, and Brad Wenstrup of Ohio—said it feels like the progress they made has been thrown away.
“Going out across the desert I remember the feelings that you have, wondering if you’re going to make it out alive,” Perry said. “Right now I wonder what that was all about. What was the point of all of that?”
A security agreement was what Perry, Collins, and Wenstrup wanted to see come out of the war, one that would allow U.S. troops to remain involved in the region when the enemy—thought to be the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—returned.
“We have an enemy today that senses weakness, knows how to find it, and then goes after it,” Wenstrup said. “I think Iraq maybe thought they could [defend themselves]. This was an opportunity for us to have another ally in the region. I came home from Iraq feeling that we liberated 25 million people.”
But that freedom is in jeopardy, Wenstrup said, if Iraqi citizens cannot or will not fight back.
And none of the congressmen thought there was much the United States could do.
“I think at this point the administration made a choice to cut and run,” Collins said. “When Fallujah fell again, we knew this foreign policy had consequences. Aside from an intervention, which I don’t think is on anybody’s mind, Iraq is going to have defend for itself. At this point we’ll see if the Iraqi security forces are capable.”
Fallujah fell to militants in January. The city was taken by U.S. forces in late 2004 at the cost of more than 100 American soldiers’ lives, the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War.
The Obama administration acknowledges the setbacks in Iraq.
“On the battlefield, it cannot be considered a success,” said Robert Beecroft, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, at a Senate committee hearing Wednesday. “It’s a struggle. We’re doing what we can to support them with equipment, assistance, training, and sharing any intelligence.”
Reports from Mosul said the Iraqis changed out of their military uniforms, abandoned their weapons, and fled their homes to escape the violence.
“It seems to me that the Iraqis laid down a lot of the arms that we gave to them,” Wenstrup said. “So that doesn’t seem to be the solution.”
At the Senate hearing, the president’s nominee to serve as the next ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, expressed confidence that Iraq could defend itself, and said groups are coming together to respond to the attacks.
“We will continue to work with our international partners to try to meet the needs of those who have been displaced, and we will try to work with the security forces in their fight against [ISIS],” Jones said.
And that may be all the U.S. can do, save from changing course on the president’s foreign policy and sending troops back into the region.
The veterans in Congress also harbor doubts about what will happen in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are set to leave by 2016. But America isn’t rallying to step back into the war—and that means living with the consequences of letting Iraq and Afghanistan defend themselves.
“I don’t think we’re powerless,” Perry said. “I think we can help form public opinion, which will help to guide [Obama] to some extent. But I don’t think there’s any appetite from the American people to go back and do our work twice.”