CAPITOL HILL — Swift gains by radical Sunni militants in Iraq are provoking widespread concerns among U.S. lawmakers of both major political parties.
But few are going on record as to what the United States should do in response.
Iraq’s deteriorating security situation comes at a time when Americans show little enthusiasm for U.S. military re-engagement in the country.
Three years after the departure of U.S. forces, sectarian conflict is engulfing Iraq, with militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seizing large swaths of territory.
The situation requires an urgent U.S. response, according to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.
“The administration must act quickly to provide assistance to the Maliki [Iraqi] government before every gain made by U.S. and allied troops is lost, and before ISIL expands its sanctuary-from which it can eventually threaten the United States,” he said.
But McConnell, like most U.S. lawmakers, is not saying precisely what the Obama administration should do. Such caution is no surprise, says Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller.
“I think they’re being vague because they don’t know what to do," he said. "One alternative, of course, is to give up and no one seems to want to say that so they have to huff and puff and pretend to want to do something and mostly what will happen will probably be very little in a situation that seems disastrous.”
Many Republicans are blasting the Obama administration for failing to leave a residual U.S. military force in Iraq after 2011.
“The president withdrew the entirety of our force without successfully negotiating a capable remaining U.S. presence," McConnell said. "Such a force would have preserved the gains made on the ground by mentoring our partners and assisting with command and control and intelligence sharing.”
But many Democrats accuse Republicans of hypocrisy, noting that America’s withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by former Republican President George W. Bush.
“To say that President Obama should be able to negotiate a long-term agreement with [Prime Minister] Maliki, when President Bush was unable to do so, is utterly absurd,” said Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agrees.
“We should not be sending our men and women back to Iraq," he said. "Those who attack President Obama for bringing our troops home are flat wrong.”
New polls show the American public overwhelmingly wants no U.S. troops in Iraq, with fewer than 20 percent linking the current fighting to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Even so, Republicans say Iraq is the latest example of U.S. weakness on the world stage under a Democratic administration, an argument whose viability Mueller doubts.
“I think the public opinion has been very much on the Democratic side — basically all [Democrats] have to do is say, ‘Do you want to get into another war? How many American troops do you want to lose in the Middle East?’”
Meanwhile, the news from Iraq remains grim with Sunni militants holding ground less than one hundred kilometers from Baghdad.