Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey cautioned against speedy Iraq intervention before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on June 18, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey cautioned against speedy Iraq intervention before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on June 18, 2014. DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett

There’s Little the U.S. Could Have Done for Iraq, Hagel and Dempsey Say

Despite pleas for action, military leaders say more intelligence is needed for the president to intervene in Iraq. By Kevin Baron and Molly O’Toole

In their first public remarks since Islamic insurgents stretching back to Syria overran much of Iraq, United States defense leaders told Congress that the Obama administration was assessing Baghdad’s defenses and waiting for more intelligence about enemy forces before deploying any American military intervention to stop the advance.

But the blame for Iraq’s devolution, they said, rests squarely with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s refusal to include competing political and sectarian factions.

Members of Congress reacted angrily to the administration’s strategy of finger-pointing at Maliki, and at the pace of White House deliberations since last week. President Barack Obama met with congressional leaders late Wednesday, but in the morning, a slew of mostly conservative critics called again for swift military strikes against insurgents nearing Baghdad and criticized Obama for not securing an agreement to keep additional U.S. combat forces in Iraq after the war ended in 2011, which they claim could have helped buy time for the young Iraqi democracy to congeal and deter any renewed insurgency.

“Well, when we're not there, we're not there. And, I mean, I don't know what you would have expected the United States to do,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Wednesday, at a previously scheduled appearance before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that he was looking for a “more accurate intelligence picture” as to the identity of the advancing groups as they fight Iraqi forces and Kurdish militias.

“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,” Dempsey said. In one example, he said, an Iraqi base was overrun but then retaken by friendly Kurdish fighters in short order. “In the course of about 36 hours, we had Iraqi Army units, we had ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant], and then we had the Peshmerga in that same facility.”

Dempsey also confirmed that the Iraq government had requested air power.

Few senior U.S. military commanders and Washington political leaders have as close a tie to Iraq as Dempsey, who commanded the training of Iraqi forces. Dempsey said parts of two Iraqi army divisions and a major police unit “did, in fact, throw down their arms, and in some cases collude with, in some cases simply desert, in northern Iraq.” He blamed the disarray on their lack of trust in the central government.

“Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists raising flags over Iraq's embattled cities triggers in me the same thing that runs through the minds of any veteran who served there,” he said, “which is bitter disappointment that Iraq's leaders failed to unite for the good of their people.”

Dempsey said he visited Baghdad last year and spoke to Maliki and Iraqi leaders about the Syrian war spilling into their country. The problem, he told them, was not in Syria but in their own political infighting and inability or unwillingness to unite Iraq against the coming insurgency.

“And in that year, the behavior was, for the most part, exactly counter to what you would probably try to do if you were trying to bring your people together: changing military leadership, cronyism, just all forms of sectarianism that have led us to where we are today,” Dempsey told the panel.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., led questioning why the Pentagon did not already have strike options ready to go, knowing that intelligence leaders like Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn warned months ago that ISIL was advancing in Iraq. Hagel said those options were being presented Wednesday by the president to congressional leaders.

“Isn’t that a little bit late?” Coats said. “Well, senator,” Dempsey replied, “it's only late if you suggest that we could have stopped it in some way. And I think it's worth remembering the real threat in Iraq that is common to all of us is ISIL, this organization called ISIL, which, as you know, started off as al-Qaeda in Iraq, went to Syria, and is now back in Iraq. So this all started and stops with Iraq. And 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.”

“We were surprised,” added Hagel, “that the Iraqi divisions, specifically the ones that Gen. Dempsey talked about, just threw down their weapons. We had obviously, as Gen. Dempsey said -- are always working options and scenarios.”

“We can only do so much. We didn't have a presence in Iraq, as you know, for the very reason you mentioned, because the Iraqis would not give us the immunity and what we needed to get a SOFA.”

"I don’t know that the presence of U.S. military would have uniquely changed the problem," Dempsey said.

The U.S is now trying to decipher exactly which Shiite militias have joined Iraqi security forces defending Baghdad. “What is left of the Iraqi security forces? They seem to be holding a line that roughly runs from Baqubah north of Baghdad over to Fallujah.”

But as Dempsey explained the outlook on the ground, on the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., continued his impassioned plea for immediate military strikes.

“It’s the largest terrorist safe haven in history,” McCain said of the Iraqi north now occupied by ISIL fighters, which threatens to “erase the gains that nearly 4,500 brave young Americans gave their lives to secure.”

McCain argued that when Obama came to office, the surge of U.S. troops “had succeeded. Iraq was not violent.” he said. “We had won the war.”

“The administration and its defenders are now scrambling to pin the blame for this catastrophic failure on anyone but themselves,” he said.

McCain, responding to his own critics, nuanced his previous statements against Obama’s national security team by saying that he criticized the Bush administration’s mishandling of the Iraq war as early as 2003, and he called for the firing of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. McCain said the U.S should call up retired Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who both supported the surge that helped turn the tide of the Iraq War. The “lion’s share” of responsibility for Iraq’s collapse, he said, falls on Maliki, “but the administration cannot escape its own responsibility.”

In London on Wednesday, Petraeus broke his silence on Iraq and pointedly did not back McCain’s eagerness for military re-intervention. “This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias, or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight,” he said, according to the Spectator.

McCain read a long history of the end of the Iraq War, arguing that Obama’s White House purposefully avoided multiple chances to negotiate with Iraqi factions to keep American troops in country. By the end of 2011, McCain argued, it was no longer politically palatable for Iraq’s political leaders to ask American forces to stay. McCain said he believes the U.S. should have continued training Iraqis and maintaining a force that could lean on Iraqi’s to unite.

“The Obama administration should have recognized after years of brutal conflict Iraqi leaders still lacked trust in one another and a strong U.S. role was required to help Iraqis broker their most politically sensitive decision,” McCain said.

McCain also said he is not advocating for a large scale U.S. ground intervention.

“There is a need for immediate action,” McCain pleaded. “I do not believe they can take Baghdad, but look at the places they have taken… there is no good option. The worst option is to do nothing,” he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., followed McCain on the Senate floor to connect the Iraq crisis to 9/11. Rubio argued that if the U.S. had taken al-Qaeda more seriously and taken actions to “degrade” the group before 9/11, those attacks could have been prevented.

“What is happening today in Iraq and in portions of Syria is in many ways the exact same thing,” Rubio argued. Rubio has made several efforts this year to stake a position as a national security player while struggling to gain support as a viable Republican presidential candidate in 2016. On Thursday, Rubio called Obama to “rally us around a plan” sooner rather than later.

“I know the president likes to go around saying the war is over, but no one told ISIL that,” Rubio said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as retired. He will retire later this year.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.