A growing chorus of lawmakers is concerned about the military boosting its presence in the Middle East amid growing tensions with Iran -- especially amid the Pentagon's latest leadership shakeup.
Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington state Democrat who heads up the House Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday called the plan to deploy 1,000 more troops to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility "concerning." Placing more U.S. troops in the region increases the likelihood of miscalculation on either side, which Smith said would clear the path for an all-out armed conflict.
"It is past time for the Administration to clearly articulate the desired outcomes for the current actions in the region," the congressman said in a statement. "... Direct military force must be used only as a last resort, and not without the consultation of Congress."
Six senators signed a letter sent to President Donald Trump on Tuesday calling on him to explain the decision to deploy more troops to the region.
"We remain concerned that increasingly escalatory actions by both sides will lead to an unnecessary conflict," the letter by Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, says. "... We expect the administration to seek authorization prior to any deployment of forces into hostilities or areas where hostilities with Iran are imminent."
The letter was also signed by Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky.
Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said a clear plan is crucial, especially after acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan abruptly stepped down on Tuesday. Shanahan surprised many when he took his name out of the running for the job following reports of an FBI investigation of his messy divorce and allegations of abuse.
"It is critical that the President nominate, and that the Senate confirm, a permanent Secretary of Defense as quickly as possible," Thornberry said. "This job should be filled in a matter of a few weeks, not months. The uncertainty surrounding this vacant office encourages our enemies and unsettles our allies."
Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Defense Department spokeswoman for the Middle East and Central Asia, said information on the units, ships or squadrons from which the 1,000 additional troops would come was unavailable.
"The forces would be comprised of units to support [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and force protection," she said, declining to offer additional details citing operational security concerns.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Tuesday with the leadership of U.S. Central Command to work out details on what the additional 1,000 troops being sent to the Mideast will do to enhance the military options for President Donald Trump in the faceoff with Iran in the Gulf.
Following the meetings at CENTCOM's headquarters in Tampa, Florida, Pompeo gave no details on where the 1,000 troops would be drawn from, or where and when they would be deployed, but said the additional forces would allow CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie to present more "coherent and consistent" military options to Trump should he decide to use them.
The main goal of the military buildup in the region was to "deter [the Iranians] from further aggression in the region" and to convince them "not to move forward with their nuclear program," Pompeo said in remarks following the meetings.
Trump does not want war, the secretary of state stressed, but detailed military options must be available to deter Iran.
In an interview with Time magazine released Tuesday, Trump brushed off the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last Thursday as "minor" and not a pretext for the use of force. But he added that "I would certainly go [to war] over nuclear weapons."
The possibility of conflict increased Monday with remarks from Iranian officials, carried by Iranian state-controlled media outlets, that the regime was ready to resume the enrichment of uranium.
Two analysts from the Council on Foreign Relations said the enrichment threat added a new dimension to the U.S.-Iran crisis.
"Now you have a ticking clock" as a result of Iran's threat to resume uranium enrichment within 10 days, Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the council, said in a conference call with reporters.
"That puts the ball back in the Americans' court," Gordon said.
Should Iran follow through on the threat, "Then the onus is on the Trump administration on how it wants to respond," he said.
Iranian-American analyst Ray Takeyh, also a senior fellow at the Council, said "I think the Iranian strategy may be to try to engage the Americans in negotiations" as a ploy to "run the clock out" to 2020 when a new administration could be in the White House that would be more prepared to deal.
"So far, that's where I think this is going," Takeyh said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.