WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful fighting force, but its leaders sounded downright timid on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that they had a “sense of urgency” in the fight against the Islamic State. But as Republicans and Democrats alike pressed them for evidence of this urgency – a safe zone in Syria, sending more ground troops, attacking the enemy stronghold of Raqqa – the military men had the same response: Wouldn’t be prudent.
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, asked about a no-fly zone that would protect fleeing Syrians – an idea with bipartisan appeal.
“We have the military capacity to impose a no-fly zone,” Selva said without hesitation. But he was concerned about the Syrian and Russian reaction. “The potential for miscalculation and loss of American life in the air,” he said, “do not warrant the no-fly zone.”
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Sen. John McCain, the panel’s chairman, shook his head. “It is one of the more embarrassing statements I have ever heard from a uniformed military officer,” the Arizona Republican said, “that we are worried about Syria and Russia’s reaction to saving the lives of thousands and thousands of Syrians being barrel-bombed and massacred.”
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a relatively dovish Democrat who had opposed a no-fly zone, sided with McCain. “I think the absence of the humanitarian zone is going to go down as one of the big mistakes that we’ve made, equivalent to the decision not to engage in humanitarian activity in Rwanda in the 1990s,” he said.
When critics say President Barack Obama isn’t doing enough against the Islamic State, he often notes that he follows the advice of his military advisers. Maybe that’s not a good thing. It’s as if the civilian and uniformed leaders of the Pentagon, scarred by Iraq, have gone in the opposite direction, trying to limit engagement at all cost. Their demurrals bring to mind Abraham Lincoln’s quip about George McClellan: “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”
If not for the caution, there could potentially be a consensus approach to the Islamic State involving safe zones and more U.S. ground troops – not enough to give Islamic State propaganda value but enough to induce potential allies to cough up ground troops of their own.
“We have all come to the conclusion we need American forces on the ground,” Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, top Democrat on the committee, told Carter. “The question, very generically, is how many and what are they going to do?”
Sen. Angus King of Maine, on the Democratic side of the dais, told Carter that “we have got to accelerate the timetable.”
“We cannot wait years for Assad to leave,” King said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Carter agreed, in theory: “I am all for urgency and acceleration of the military campaign.”
But with all deliberate speed.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat, asked Carter whether he had called on any European defense ministers to provide troops for a safe zone.
“I’ve not asked them for forces for that undertaking,” the secretary admitted.
Donnelly pointed out that “if you ask the French defense minister for troops for a safe zone, he would probably offer them.”
The Democrat also said Saudi Arabia and Jordan would send ground troops – but that time is a-wasting. “As long as Raqqa is held and other areas are held, it dramatically increases the chance of another attack in our country,” Donnelly said.
Carter, in his opening statement, ruled out a major U.S. ground force. “While we certainly have the capability,” he said, “it would be a significant undertaking” and could “Americanize the conflict.”
McCain tried to shake Carter from his caution toward the Islamic State. “There are 20- to 30,000 of them – they are not giants,” he said, arguing that “a small component of American forces with an international force” could “take out this caliphate.”
The secretary said he had “less high hopes, perhaps, than you that they would assemble such a force.”
McCain said he was “depressed” by the hearing.
“We went to Bosnia after they ethnically cleansed 8,000 people,” he said. “This guy has killed 240,000, and yet it’s too hard for the most powerful nation on Earth to set up a no-fly zone.”
McCain left the hearing room without shaking hands with the witnesses.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.