John McCain feeling reassured on Iraq
By: Burgess Everett
June 16, 2014 09:55 PM EDT
Sen. John McCain said he spoke to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough over the weekend as sectarian violence in Iraq swelled.
His message: Get the old team back in place.
The Arizona Republican said he wasn’t particularly encouraged by McDonough’s response — but the conversation between the staunch critic of Obama’s foreign policy and Obama’s consigliere demonstrates the White House’s awareness of Congress’s acute interest in the issue.
His huddle with the White House seemed to instill some confidence in McCain that the capital of Iraq can resist the militants’ advance. Last week, McCain declined to predict whether the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq could take Baghdad.
But based on the information he has now, McCain believes that the Iraqi army can hold the city.
“I don’t believe Baghdad will fall,” he told reporters Monday evening, explaining that the ISIS can still wage a terrorist campaign in Iraq. “What they can do is orchestrate bombings, assassinations, create turmoil, shelling in different places. But I am pretty confident that they won’t take Baghdad.”
As President Barack Obama mulls his best options in Iraq after sending about 275 troops into the embattled nation to protect U.S. citizens and the embassy, many on Capitol Hill realize that for the most part, their hands are tied. Aides don’t expect Obama to seek congressional approval if he pursues the airstrikes that many in Congress are asking for, but lawmakers say regardless of their diminished role in the decision-making process, they want to be kept in the loop.
McCain’s conversation with Obama’s right-hand man might not lead to McCain’s preferred Iraq policy. But the White House’s engagement with 2008 GOP presidential nominee is notable given his relentless criticism of Obama’s decision to pull the U.S. military out of Iraq in 2011.
In their conversation over the weekend, McCain said he urged McDonough to get the architects of the 2007 Iraq surge back into the fold as soon as possible.
“I told him to get Gen. [Jack] Keane and Gen. [David] Petraeus over there as quickly as possible. And [former Ambassador to Iraq] Ryan Crocker,” McCain said. “I think they’re talking to Gen. Keane. But they aren’t doing anything. Days go by and they’re exploring their options. The place is burning down.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also got some personal time with a top Obama administration official, speaking to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about the situation in Iraq. While McCain and several other hawkish GOP lawmakers are pushing the Obama administration to pursue airstrikes, Levin issued the same patient prescription that he gave reporters late last week.
“I’m going to wait until I have heard from our top military people as to what their recommendations and options are,” Levin said. “I expect regular briefings.”
Both Hagel and McDonough met with Obama on Monday evening regarding the president’s options in Iraq.
Levin’s position represents that of most congressional Democrats, who are keen to defer to Obama on foreign policy decisions. Increasingly Republicans are itching to harness U.S. military might in some way, and formerly reticient lawmakers like Senate Armed Services ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) are now joining McCain in calling for airstrikes.
McCain said he’s trying to convince Democrats to join that call — and said a unified voice is where Congress can best spend its energy.
“I would look to see us strongly urge that they carry out air strikes,” McCain said on Monday evening. “Remember, we’re not talking about bombing towns and cities. There are long stretches of that desert that [the ISIS] have to travel across.”