Witnesses attacked the premise that al Qaeda is no longer a prevalent threat to U.S. national security at a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing Wednesday.
The hearing followed a series of news reports contradicting the administrations long-standing narrative that al Qaeda is "on the run" and "on the path to defeat." Each witness pushed back on this notion and stressed the importance of a continued U.S. presence in the Middle East.
Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.), Gen. Jack Keane, the former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Former Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.), and Seth Jones, the associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center all joined Lieberman at the hearing, "A False Narrative Endangers the Homeland."
Lieberman warned that political promises shouldn’t be allowed to endanger the nation’s security.
"[When] President Obama ran for office in 2008 and again in 2012, one of the basic things he said he would change … was that he was going to get us out of the wars we were in and not get us in the regional wars around the world," said Lieberman.
"Sometimes the world doesn’t cooperate with a presidential narrative, and I think that’s where we are … in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, where if you don’t do something more than we’re doing now, they’re going to tip over."
Others criticized the decision of the Obama administration to "pivot" toward threats emanating from Asia.
"I know intellectually we like to talk about pivoting to the East because of the emergence of China. … We can’t be serious about that," said Keane.
"The fact of the matter is we have huge problems in the Middle East that threaten the United States. … In Libya and Syria they just want us to help them. They don’t want our troops. And in Iraq, where we did help them, we walked away and look at the mess we have as a result. That should inform us how dangerous this situation is and how important an American commitment is to stay engaged, and we have to do that in order to protect the American people."
Jones echoed Keane’s point.
"As much as we would like this war and struggle to end, there are organizations committed to fighting Americans and conducting attacks overseas that will not end. They don’t have a desire to end this," he said.
Earlier this month in a "brazen challenge to Iraq’s central government," al Qaeda militants took control of Fallujah, a city in western Iraq. Despite efforts to retake control, the Iraqi government has not been successful at removing the militants.
"There is a very serious threat to U.S. infrastructures and citizens overseas," Jones said, arguing that loosely affiliated or al Qaeda inspired groups and members, like the Internet-inspired Tsarnaev brothers, are a major national security threat at home and abroad.
"The terror threat has changed from the 9-11 days," Hartman said. "The core of al Qaeda has been substantially destroyed by the efforts of two administrations, one a Republican, one a Democrat … but the terror threat has morphed."
"It is now a loosely affiliated horizontal threat. Many of those groups are called al Qaeda, some are, some aren’t, but they’re opportunistic and they come together like cancer cells when necessary."
Hartman noted that evidence of that is seen in Iraq, where terrorist groups are "taking advantage of a security vacuum" in the country.
Experts have long pointed to the civil war in Syria as a potential catalyst for similar sectarian violence in neighboring countries, such as Iraq. The United Nations Special Representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, previously noted that the two countries are "interrelated," with Iraq being "the fault line between the Sunni and Shia world."
"We’re not going to send tens of thousands of troops on the ground to any of these countries," Lieberman argued, "but there’s something in between that and just pulling out."