In its second day of testimony on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration tried once again to prove it has a handle on the situation in Iraq, where a terrorist uprising has gained key strongholds and driven tens of thousands of refugees to flee across its crumbling borders.
At a heated hearing Thursday with officials from the State and Defense departments, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members took turns poking holes in the U.S. strategy, asking a litany of questions about the administration's assumptions and plans for handling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez questioned why the administration has faith that Iraq will form an effective "functional federalist" state as the U.S. envisions, particularly if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains in power.
"Many say what is happening on the ground is accelerating towards a breakup of Iraq because too many Iraqi communities no longer trust the Maliki government, and the question is whether we can do anything to prevent it," the New Jersey Democrat said.
Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, who just returned from Iraq, argued that there is an "emerging consensus" around this model of decentralizing power but keeping the state together, "in which you recognize a very substantial devolution of authorities to principles of local security control."
Administration officials argued Wednesday that U.S. interests are best served if Iraq does not break up into smaller ethnic factions.
But Menendez questioned whether such aspirations are realistic given the unstable security and political situation.
"Can you even get to a federalist model the way things are evolving in Iraq?" he asked. "If it ends up being the prime minister is Maliki, how do you think that you keep this nation together?... Isn't the likely outcome of that to be more possible to see a divided Iraq?"
McGurk stuck to his guns that the U.S. is not getting involved in whether Maliki should stay or go, but he acknowledged his continued leadership would present challenges. "It remains to be seen whether the existing prime minister could build such a consensus, but that remains very much a question," he said.
State and Defense officials said they have had the Islamic State on their radar for years but only picked up on the threat that Mosul would be taken days before it was stunningly seized without Iraqi Security Forces putting up a fight. Particularly in light of such a security collapse, Defense officials are reviewing assessments of Iraqi Security Forces and the situation on the ground with plans to update Obama soon on his military options.
But Menendez argued that the committee would be reluctant to approve any future arms sales to Iraq unless the assessments are shared with Congress and can demonstrate that the Iraqi Security Forces are competent, after watching U.S. weapons fall so easily into the hands of terrorists.
"Unless you are going to give us a sense of where the security forces are at, moving forward, this chair is not going to be willing to approve more arms sales so that they can be abandoned to go to the hands of those that we are seriously concerned about in terms of our own national security," he said.
Administration officials argued they are trying to address ISIS's advancement in Iraq as a regional conflict that threatens the broader area and are soliciting the assistance of allies in the region.
But several committee members criticized the administration's handling of the situation, particularly the lack of more proactive action to address the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has become a training camp for ISIS suicide bombers and a safe haven for terrorists.
"People on this committee have been saying for like a year and half that when the time was right—when we could have taken steps in Syria that could have prevented this—they weren't taken," said Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel's ranking member.
Corker added that he questions whether Obama's interest in sending $500 million to support Syrian rebels now amounts to too little too late.
"I now have gotten to the point where I question, I hate to say it, how effective that's going to be at this point," he said.