Special envoy Brett McGurk
Special envoy Brett McGurk | Dailysabah, the commons

Frustrated senators ask why ISIS remains so strong

Clearly frustrated lawmakers grilled the Obama administration's lead man in the diplomatic coalition against ISIS Tuesday during the latest in a series of congressional hearings on how to defeat the brutal Islamic State.

The grilling occurred when the State Department's Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition that has been formed to counter the Islamic State, appeared alone before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill.

"Our strategy is making progress," McGurk said in his opening statement that at times presented an upbeat view of the fight against the terrorist organization. "The trajectory is positive."

To illustrate headway, the veteran diplomat presented a map showing territorial losses suffered by Islamic State. ISIS  "has not had a major battlefield victory in over a year," he said.

Senators expressed impatience with McGurk's presentation, though, referencing this month's testimony from CIA Director John Brennan, who gave a far darker assessment.

"As our CIA director said this month, as you continue to make gains, ISIS will likely intensify its global terror campaign," said the committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn). Quoting Brennan directly, Corker cited the CIA's assessment that administration efforts "have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.”

One after one - while an unidentified Adele lookalike sat in the Senate chamber smirking and texting behind McGurk's back - senators from both sides of the aisle kept the heat turned up on their witness.

"I have yet to hear from this administration a game plan to defeat (ISIS)," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc).  

"Aren't we repeating past mistakes?" asked Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey).

"We're 22 months into a war we haven't debated or voted on," said Seb, Tim Kaine (D-Virginia).

 "I think many of us grow frustrated when the administration’s optimistic rhetoric often does not match the results," Corker said.

"We're not doing this fast enough," Johnson said. "What's it going to take?"

The grilling at times seemed to meander slightly off topic.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked about the overseas theft of weapons winding up in the wrong hands. Marco Rubio (R-Fl) spoke gravely of threats to the homeland.

"It was a tough session and hard to watch," a Senate staff member told AMI Newswire. "But the stakes require it. This is national security."

Not all the interactions were testy. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) thanked his home state fellow, saying "we are lucky to have you" in this "nightmare of a job."  The witness responded calmly throughout, citing his own previous testimony and alluding to his frequent trips abroad to address the fight against ISIS.

Acknowledging that he would like to see the fight progress faster, McGurk said "we're doing better" to combat the Islamic State.

The fight, however, is far from over, he said. The situation with ISIS is an "unprecedented challenge and is going to be with us for years," McGurk said.

"That's not good enough," the Senate staffer told AMI Newswire. "We have to step up, and do it yesterday."

The Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant  was formed in September 2014, aiming to destroy Islamic State. The group was formed in conjunction with 65 international partners plus the United States.

The group's first U.S. special envoy was retired Marine Corps four-star General John Allen, with McGurk as his deputy. When Allen retired from that position in October 2015, McGurk assumed the job.

A longtime favorite of two administrations, McGurk is credited for helping to formulate the war in Iraq. In his book Decision Points, President George W. Bush wrote that McGurk was part of his "personal band of warriors."

In March 2012, President Barack Obama tapped McGurk as ambassador to Iraq. Three months later, McGurk withdrew from consideration when a series of racy emails to his journalist paramour were leaked to the press.