On Tuesday morning, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a posture hearing with the heads of the US Special Operations Command, Africa Command, and Central Command, which oversees the country's military involvement in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The combined portfolios of the various commands include all of the US fights in in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, plus Special Operations stuff all around the world. Together, they account for most of the actual shooting the US is doing these days.
At the most abstract level, the point of such a hearing is to get people to say stuff on the record that they'd really prefer not to say.
Hearings are a bit like court cases when the attorneys call a witness to stand for cross-examination. Both sides question the witness, trying to get the witness to say or reveal things that help each side strengthen their own case and hurt the opposing case.
In Senate hearings, Democrats generally want to push the idea that President Obama's (and therefore the Democratic Party's) narrative and strategies are correct, while Republicans want to disprove the notion that the president and his party are right about anything whatsoever, and convincingly demonstrate that Obama and his foolishness will doom the world to anarchy and ruin.
This hearing's witnesses were all senior military officers who directly work for the president (a.k.a. the commander-in-chief). So they needed to figure out how to indicate that they're doing their job and faithfully executing their orders while suggesting that the administration's plans are working, or at least that they can make those plans work. They also had to do all this without (getting busted for) lying or slagging anyone off.
It's worth bearing in mind that though members of Congress aren't technically the direct bosses of the guys in the hot seat and don't give them any orders, they still write the laws and policies under which the commanders operate and allocate the budget to pay for everything.
There's not a hell of a lot of upside to testifying before Congress, but a million ways to screw up and piss everyone off. Half the time, you have to find a way to agree with people who think your boss is awesome, but without kissing ass too obviously or paper over obvious but inconvenient truths. The rest of the time, you need to figure out how to (truthfully) respond to people who think your boss is a great big jerk without pissing the questioner or your boss off.
If the questioners are lucky, they'll get the witness to say something on the record that they'd never be caught dead saying on TV, either for fear of being exposed as a liar or getting in trouble for what they said.
For example, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the committee, wanted to know if Obama's plan to get the US out Afghanistan made any sense. Austin more or less agreed with McCain's assertion that the security environment was going to hell. Austin went on to say that he "would agree that a review of the [current withdrawal] plan is in order."
This is about as close as you'll see a general getting out in public and saying, on the record, that the presidential strategy is all jacked up.
McCain then turned to General David Rodriguez, commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), asking him if we need to do more to halt the spread of IS in Libya. Although it took a lot to put Rodriguez on the spot, McCain got him to answer the question of whether the US — not the US and its Libyan partners or allies, but the US proper — needed to do more to stop IS in Libya: "Yes, we… as part of that international coalition, we have to do more. Yessir."
In other words, the general appeared to suggest that the US (and by extension, the administration) is dragging its ass on IS in Libya.
Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the committee's ranking member, did get to something interesting. You may remember the US program to train Syrian good guys to kill bad IS guys, which later turned out to be an utter joke.
Well, apparently the problem wasn't that it was a bad idea to train good Syrians, it was that it was a bad idea to be really stupid about it. The news here is that the US is looking to restart the training program but with some major changes. Austin acknowledged that the previous training program was slow to start and slow to produce graduates. The idea is that this time they're going to going to work with smaller groups of people over shorter periods of time to get them back in the fight.
Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) used her questioning to criticize last summer's international nuclear deal with Iran. The Islamic Republic has launched a series of ballistic missile tests since then, she noted, with the latest flurry in recent days. Austin agreed with Ayotte that the nuke deal didn't do squat to stop the Iranians from launching those missiles. The White House also agrees, saying the tests don't break the deal's terms, though they might violate US sanctions and a UN Security Council resolution.
Ayotte then put General Joseph Votel, top honcho at US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), on the spot. She basically asked if the US has screwed everything up regarding the capture of al Qaeda or IS militants. "Where will we detain these individuals under long-term Law of War detention to interrogate them so we can find out all that we need to know about al Qaeda and ISIS?"
If, magically, the top IS guy wound up bound and gagged at SOCOM's front door tomorrow morning, would SOCOM have any goddamn idea where to stash him? No.
"I would agree that there is a requirement for long-term detention," replied Vogel. "That is a policy decision that I think is being debated." He was basically saying that his bosses haven't yet gotten back to him on an answer.
Watch the VICE News documentary Guantanamo: Black Out Bay
Moving on from prisoners, Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) also scored a few points on the size of ground forces in Iraq. Addressing Austin, he said, "You've currently got, I think, about 4,000 ground forces available, if I'm correct. Is that enough — do you have enough right now to assist in your plans to be able to retake Mosul and Raqqa?"
Austin noted that the main part of this is Iraqis doing all the work on the ground with US support. That said, as Iraq looks to retake Mosul, the US thinks that Iraqis won't be able to win without even more help. In other words, as it stands, between the Iraqis, the US, and the Kurds, CENCTOM isn't convinced that there's enough on the ground to boot IS out of Mosul, despite recent declarations that a campaign to do so was underway.
Austin has apparently kicked his recommendations up his chain of command, so he wasn't about to go on record and tell the whole wide world about his secret hopes and esires, but he did say that if he had scads and scads more guys, he'd dedicate that extra manpower to improving human intelligence, providing more "advise and assist" teams to the Iraqis at various levels, increasing help with logistics, and increase the Special Operations footprint.
That still doesn't amount to major combat operations, but it's certainly a bit further along that slippery slope to quagmire.
Turning back to Iran, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) wanted to open up the possibility that the election of a whole bunch of moderates in Iran will mean better times are ahead. But Austin wasn't going to go all in on that idea.
"I think it is too soon to tell, sir. What we saw leading up to the elections is we saw a lot of moderates get disqualified from the elections," he said, noting that the real question is if "the folks who are now classifying themselves moderates, are they really moderates or just another flavor of hardliner?"
Finally, erstwhile presidential candidate Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) followed up, in part, on earlier questions about the ability of the US-led coalition to retake Mosul and Raqqa. While Rounds had asked if the US had enough troops on the ground to enable Iraq to retake the cities, Graham focused more on Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, Raqqa.
The first bit of information he wheedled out of the witnesses concerned Votel's assessment that about 80 percent of the "good guys" in Syria are Kurds. In other words, the entire roster of everyone else in Syria who isn't on the side of someone like IS, al Qaeda, or Assad is actually kinda small these days. Part of the problem seems to be that the US will only provide you cover if you're fighting IS. If you fight against the regime and the Russians bomb you, then you're out of luck.
Between that and the low numbers of Syrian good guys that aren't Kurdish, it looks like the odds of beating IS in Syria are actually pretty low.
Upon further questioning, Votel appeared to confirm this, stating that the US has no plans to take or hold Raqqa, just a strategy to cut it off and isolate it.
Graham then put Austin to the test, asking him about testimony given in June 2010 by then US Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno about the fight against IS. Odierno said that they were on the "10 yard line" for readiness, and the goal was to get Iraq to the goal line by 2011. Austin was forced to concede that years had passed and that the fight against IS has become a whole different ballgame.
Graham wrapped by asking Rodriguez about Libya, getting him to admit that at this point Libya has become a failed state.
And then there was even more talking.
Runners up for inclusion are the statement by Rodriguez that the fight against IS in Libya could take another decade and the announcement that after all those years and countless tweets, the Lord's Resistance Army (led by warlord Joseph Kony) is on the ropes and probably down to about 200 guys. And some other stuff. I just ran out of energy.
Now, I don't want to close out by suggesting that this was all there was to a two-and-a-half-hour long yammerfest. Nor should it be assumed that the Republicans did a great job of discrediting Obama. It's just that points about how the current plans are working tend to be nuanced, while it's easy to point out the flaws in something. The difference between playing offense and defense during a hearing is the difference between being a Monday-morning quarterback and actually putting on pads and hauling your ass out and playing the game.
Talk and criticism are cheap. The most important facts in a hearing don't necessarily matter as much as the political points that will drive the debate going forward. Even so, it's seldom that a congressional hearing gives so many different angles (supporting or contradicting presidential policies), and by congressional hearing standards, that makes it an absolute hoot.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan