Washington — Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was one of several lawmakers on Tuesday who tried to pin down top Pentagon officials on the administration’s new campaign to target Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, and they were not satisfied with the answers.
Blumenthal, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, read part of a speech Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made on the floor of the Senate in 2002, when Hagel was still a Republican senator from Nebraska. Back then, Hagel was skeptical of legislation that would authorize the use of military force in Iraq, legislation the White House now says gives it authority to go after Islamic militants in Syria known as ISIS or ISIL.
“I will perhaps unfairly quote to you something that you said on the floor of the Senate in 2002….you said, ‘In authorizing the use of force in Iraq we are at the beginning of a road that has no end’,” Blumenthal said. “We’ve lived with the framework that came from that vote; we’ve suffered as Americans greatly in both the loss of people and the sacrifice of treasure.”
Blumenthal also asked Hagel, “Can you tell us what the threat is to the United States that we’ll eliminate by degrading and defeating ISIL?”
In a sometimes rambling answer, Hagel said, “I think we are in a different situation than we were in 2002,” and the president has clearly laid out the operation’s objectives.
Hagel also said, “ISIS is a very clear threat to the United States of America,” citing its beheading of two American journalists in Syria.
After the hearing, Blumenthal told the Connecticut Mirror, “Without meaning any personal disrespect, the administration owes us a fuller answer to the threat ISIS poses to our nation immediately.”
Blumenthal said it’s still unknown who will be a part of the international coalition the administration says will back U.S. efforts and what kind of arms we are going to give Syrian rebels, whom President Obama wants to train and arm to fight ISIS.
Blumenthal also said there is no guarantee “our so-called friends in Syria are actually on our side.”
Hagel’s job was to sell Congress on the president’s plan, but he warned that the fight “will not be an easy or brief effort. It is complicated.”
“We are at war with ISIL, as we are with al-Qaeda,” Hagel said. “But destroying ISIL will require more than military efforts alone. It will require political progress in the region, and effective partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria.”
Many senators besides Blumenthal expressed skepticism during the three-and-a-half hour hearing, especially after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would recommend having U.S. advisers fight with Iraqi troops if the situation requires it.
“To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said.
Blumenthal said he is still considering whether he’ll support legislation to give Obama the authority to spend $500 million in Pentagon funds to train and arm the Syrian rebels.
But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he would vote against the measure, putting him at odds with the president and his party’s leaders.
The Syria legislation is expected to be attached to a continuing resolution, known as a CR, that Congress will consider this week to fund the federal government past the end of the fiscal year, from Sept. 30 to Dec. 11.
“I’m not going to be convinced to vote for this just because it’s attached to the CR,” Murphy aid.