WASHINGTON — The government of Iraq, where American soldiers fought and died for the better part of a decade, is in full retreat before an onslaught from a radical Islamist group dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
But the magnitude of the crisis has yet to capture the attention of Washington.
As fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Wednesday tightened their grip on Iraq’s second largest city, captured the hometown of Saddam Hussein and pushed to less than 100 miles from the Iraqi capital, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met to question the man President Barack Obama has nominated to be the next ambassador to Iraq. Yet not a single senator asked him directly about the Iraqi government’s apparent loss of control.
They also didn’t ask questions of the man who sat next to him, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
No one pressed for answers about how many U.S. weapons supplied to the Iraqi forces had ended up in insurgents’ hands as Iraqi forces shed their uniforms and fled their posts. Or what the fate will be of the U.S. military assistance program to Iraq, on which American taxpayers have already spent $14 billion. Or why they thought the American training program for Iraq’s military had resulted in such a humiliating rout.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Committee also showed a decided lack of interest in Iraq developments. At a daylong hearing, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel fielded not one question about Iraq. Admittedly, the hearing topic was the prisoner exchange that delivered five Taliban officials to Qatar from Guantanamo in return for captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, but there was no limitation on what the committee members could ask.
A Senate staffer, asked about the omission, acknowledged surprise at the lack of curiosity from the Foreign Relations Committee about a country where almost 4,500 Americans had died.
“I think that there is a general sense of apathy about Iraq,” the staffer explained, asking not to be identified because the comments might be seen as critical. “Iraq is mostly viewed in terms of other issues.”
Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the current Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, a think tank, said he thinks that few in Washington have an appetite for discussing Iraq, even as it sinks into a crisis that White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Wednesday called “grave.”
“There is no doubt the situation has deteriorated over the last 24 hours,” Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One.
“There is a fear of re-engaging in Iraq because we have turned the page,” Jeffrey said, referring to the 2011 pullout of the last U.S. troops. “This is presidential policy colliding with facts on the ground, facts that could change the Middle East.”
Jeffrey ticked off items that could have been the subject of questions at either congressional hearing Wednesday. The Iraqi security forces, he noted, “have no air power to their campaign. They don’t have trainers in tactical stuff so they resorted to being a checkpoint army. They don’t know how to maneuver.”
He argued that they would have been better trained “had we kept a residual force in Iraq.”
The witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing also didn’t say much that invited probing about developments in Iraq and how the United States might respond. In his opening statement, Stuart Jones, the current U.S. ambassador to Jordan who’s been nominated to go to Iraq, only referred once to events in Mosul, where fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant captured two airports, three military bases and freed thousands of suspected terrorists from prisons they captured.
“Monday’s coordinated attack on Mosul in which militants overran parts of the city highlights just how dangerous this group is,” Jones said in his opening statement. “We will continue to work with our international partners to meet the needs of those who have been displaced. And we will look for ways to support the government and the security forces.”
Jones assured senators that ensuring the safety of the 5,300 U.S. personnel who work at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and thousands of other U.S. citizens living in Iraq would be his “highest priority.”
But the senators at the one-hour hearing, which also featured the nominees to be ambassador to Egypt and Qatar, were far more interested in the turbulent political situation in Egypt and the memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Qatar over the five released Taliban officials.
The closest the hearing came to addressing the deteriorating situation in Iraq came during an exchange between Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Robert Stephen Beecroft, the current ambassador to Iraq who’s been nominated to become the U.S. envoy to Egypt.
Referring to the United States’ departure from Iraq, Johnson asked Beecroft: “How’s that going?”
“It’s an uphill battle,” Beecroft responded. The battlefield “cannot be considered a success.”