It would appear that Congress has learned an important fiscal lesson from the Defense Department’s disastrous $500 million program to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels: how to say “no” to the Pentagon when it wants more money.
“Over a month ago, I submitted a request to the four congressional defense committees, including this one, to release holds on the final tranche of funds in the Syria equipping program. That is some $116 million,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
“We need these funds to provide and transport ammunition, weapons and other equipment to further enable the progress being made against ISIL in Syria by partners like the Syrian-Arab coalition,” he said. “All four committees have failed to act on that request and I ask you to release these holds urgently. We should not be impeding the very momentum we are trying to build.”
Rather than acquiesce and commit more money to the effort, panel chair John McCain (R-AZ) said the military won’t receive another cent for the program, which produced only a handful of fighters, nowhere near the intended goal of 5,400 fighters a year.
“We don't want to approve of something like that again,” said McCain, the upper chamber’s premier defense hawk.
“If you want that kind of funding to train and equip, we want to know what the plan is and we don't want to see a repetition of testimony by the head of Central Command, who said, ‘Well, we have [a few fighters] and we've spent $43 million,’” he said, referring to a September appearance by the command’s chief, Gen. Lloyd Austin, that signaled the beginning of the end for the program.
“We have an obligation to taxpayers,” he added.
The back-and-forth was just one of several testy exchanges between McCain and the Pentagon chief but was emblematic of the lack of trust Republicans have for President Obama and his strategy to defeat ISIS, especially in the wake of the attacks in Paris and California that killed more than 140 people.
The chasm between the two sides widened after the president’s primetime address on Sunday, in which he provided no new policies for destroying the jihadists, prompting GOP lawmakers and White House contenders to universally pan the speech.
McCain’s comments also indicate that lawmakers are still upset about the failure of the train and equip effort, which even President Obama -- who previously considered the program a cornerstone of his strategy to eliminate ISIS -- said failed to meet expectations.
Capitol Hill was slow to condemn the program, but once it was clear it was having zero impact on the battlefield, lawmakers couldn’t wait to pile on. The lingering anger in Congress means the Pentagon may have to jump through several hoops before the remaining $116 million is released.
For his part, Carter seemed to get ahead of the president when he said he considers his agency to be at war with ISIS.
“The reality is we're at war,” he said. “That's how our troops feel about it because they're taking the fight to ISIL every day, applying the might of the finest fighting force the world has ever known.”
He disagreed with the president’s assessment that the U.S. had “contained” ISIS, saying instead that the U.S. effort was “building momentum.”
He contradicted the president again when he said the Pentagon didn’t need a need authorization for the use of military force to fight extremists, something Obama called for in his primetime address.
“I'm not a lawyer, but I'm told, and I'm glad, otherwise it would be a problem -- we have the authority -- legal authority to do what we want to do. And the AUMF, as I testified, that the president submitted would also allow us to do everything we need to do in this campaign,” Carter said.