Congress largely silent on unfolding Islamic State crisis

(McClatchy) When it comes to the deteriorating situation in Iraq, there is precious little advice or consent coming from the Senate, and the silence is equally resounding in the House of Representatives.

— Senators were so eager to put their imprint on the Iran nuclear deal that 47 Republicans wrote a letter about it to that country’s leaders before any deal has been finalized.

But when it comes to the deteriorating situation in Iraq, there is precious little advice or consent coming from the Senate, and the silence is equally resounding in the House of Representatives.

As for the 2016 presidential candidates, they’ve been looking backward not forward, sniping over President George W. Bush’s military entry into Iraq a dozen years ago and President Barack Obama’s exit in 2011.

Among the lawmakers and White House hopefuls, only Sen. Lindsey Graham has offered a concrete proposal about the current situation, calling for sending 10,000 American ground troops back to Iraq.

“It will take thousands of American soldiers over there to protect millions of us back here at home,” the South Carolina Republican, who says he’s close to announcing a White House run, told CNN on Monday.

That appeal fell on deaf ears in Congress, where senators and representatives have approached the Islamic State’s capture of Ramadi and other gains by the jihadist group as a topic best left to TV commentators.

Lawmakers from both parties insisted that Obama’s proposed plan to slow Iran’s nuclear program be voted on in Congress.

In contrast, congressional resolutions to authorize military action against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and beyond have gathered dust for months.

With presidential candidates still arguing over whether going to war in Iraq in 2003 was a mistake, lawmakers don’t appear eager to take a stand on an anti-Islamic State strategy that, judging from recent history in the Middle East, has as much chance of failing as succeeding.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has gathered only 30 signatures on a letter urging Speaker John Boehner to bring to the floor Schiff’s measure providing limited authorization for use of military force against the Islamic State.

Schiff is so frustrated by the lack of movement on his measure that he’s taken to scolding his colleagues.

“Nine months into the undeclared war against ISIS, Congress still refuses to act,” Schiff said in a May 7 statement, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “First, it was said we shouldn’t vote on the war until after (last fall’s) election. Next, it was argued we had to wait until the president sent us a draft. Later still, it was maintained that we couldn’t take up the matter until we voted on an Iran deal that has yet to be consummated. Never mind that we have no duty to vote on a negotiation and the highest obligation to vote on war.”

Schiff plaintively asked: “How many excuses must Congress make? How long must the Constitution wait?”

In one of the few congressional hearings on a resolution authorizing use of military force against the Islamic State, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who is running for president, grilled Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

At a March 11 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Paul expressed concerns that the measure would give Obama and his successors too much power to wage war against the Islamic State.

“Under this resolution, I believe you could have unlimited number of troops in Iraq,” Paul said. “I understand you say it’s not contemplated. I also believe that you could have unlimited numbers of troops in Libya and Nigeria.”

During a series of exchanges with Carter, Paul suggested that “30 nations” had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State – a misstatement that exaggerated the number of radical groups that have claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.

“I have to deal with words that 15 years from now I have to explain to my kids and their families and their kids’ kids – that something I voted for in 2015 still has us at war in 2030 in 30 different countries,” Paul said.

He added: “It’s not your sincerity I question, it’s the politicians and the next politician and the next politician after you.”

After the March 2003 invasion, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq peaked at 170,300 in late 2007 following Bush’s surge in the war effort.

Obama campaigned in 2008 on withdrawing from Iraq, and his subsequent three-year draw-down saw the last American combat forces leave in December 2011.

A total of 4,493 Americans died in Iraq. More than 3,000 troops have returned to Iraq since the Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, last June. At least 300 of those are helping to train Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad and four other sites, including one in Anbar province, where Ramadi is the provincial capital.

Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, told reporters Wednesday that 7,000 Iraqis have completed training, but none were at Ramadi or sent there as reinforcements last weekend when the Islamic State captured the city.

American special forces also are training Syrians to battle the Islamic State in Syria. The first 90 Syrians recently started a program that’s expected to cost $500 million; they are expected to be deployed this summer. The Pentagon has vetted an additional 400 prospective trainees and plans to train 5,000 in the first year.

U.S.-led aircraft have conducted more than 3,200 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since last August.

But in Washington, Congress’ actions have been limited primarily to political attacks.

After Obama delivered the commencement address Wednesday at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said: “While (Obama) continues his constant political campaigning, Ramadi falls, ISIL gains ground, Russia puts pressure on Eastern Europe, North Korea and Iran build nuclear programs, and China literally builds itself a larger country.”

The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, emailed reporters news articles about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s shifting positions on whether he would have gone to war with Iraq in 2003, along with gleeful commentary.

“Jeb Bush had a pretty terrible week last week, completely due to his own bumbling,” the DNC said in one message.

There’s been precious little substantive action.

When the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 14 approved a $612 billion defense authorization bill for next year, its staff put out a 38-page summary of the legislation.

The summary contained only two references to the Islamic State: a one-sentence description of helping Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon confront the militant group and a second sentence providing Lebanon and Jordan a combined $125 million to protect their borders against the jihadists.

Credit: James Rosen – McClatchy Washington Bureau